I teach a group of first-graders at a congregational Hebrew school once a week. Recently, seven-year old Rachel turned to her friend Sophie and declared, “You’re a half-Jew!”
Sophie, a normally vibrant, articulate Hebrew school student herself, became instantly reserved.
“Rachel!” I exclaimed.
“What?” Rachel questioned, sensing my admonishing tone.
I asked Rachel what she noticed about Sophie’s reaction to her words. “She looks sad,” Rachel observed. I asked her why she thought that Sophie looked sad, and if she thought that it had anything to do with calling her half-Jewish. “But she is a half-Jew!” Rachel declared, “Emily told me so!”
“It may be that one of Sophie’s parents comes from a different background,” I explained. “But that doesn’t mean that Sophie is not part of our community.”
“Calling me ‘half-Jewish’ makes me feel like I’m half a person,” Sophie softly added.
When Rachel began to realize the effect of her words, she said “I think I made a mistake with my mouth.” I encouraged her, honoring the fact that in this interaction, she — a seven-year-old — had come to learn just a bit of what some seventy-year olds still have yet to understand: that the words we speak can be very hurtful, and make others feel unwelcome. It is imperative that we use language that is welcoming! Sophie is an equally important part of our Hebrew School class and must be treated as such. While some children of intermarriage take on the mantle of “half-Jew” with pride, that’s for them to decide, not for us to label.