I received this question from a Jewish mom to my Mixed and Matched column:
My husband was raised in a nominally Christian family. We are raising our kids Jewish. Our oldest is going to public school in the fall. I feel like I should prepare our son for the inevitable Christian child who tells him, ‘Jews are going to hell.’ I don’t want to cast aspersions on my in-laws and other Christians. How do I handle this? — Love My In-laws
Dear Love: Some people will read your letter and say, “It’s not inevitable; you don’t need to say anything.” But they are wrong. There is rarely a fire at public school, but they hold practice fire drills nonetheless. Be prepared, have the conversation upfront.
Begin by discussing your message with your husband so that you have a comfortable, shared story for your son. Then explain to your son that in any group, whether it is a group of baseball fans, people from the same country, those on the same soccer team or those who share the same religion, there is always the chance that some of those people think differently, even so differently that we may not like what they believe. Tell him that some Christians believe differently from your own family members. These Christians believe that Jesus is the God for everyone and that anyone who does not agree is going to hell.
Remember for yourself that this basic message will at some point extend to people who are racist or homophobic. The goal is to share some bad news about life without making him feel hate toward others.
What often helps children is telling them that while Christians believe in hell, Jews do not, so there is nothing to fear. Give them a bit of the history of early Christianity; for example, early Christian leaders argued whether or not Jesus was God and eventually the yeses won. So even early Christians weren’t 100 percent clear about Jesus being God. Also, do acknowledge that Jesus was a real historical person and he was Jewish. In his lifetime, Jesus didn’t claim to be a Christian and in fact, Christianity was not invented until long after his death so it would have been impossible for him to call himself a Christian. That is enough information for your child to feel competent in a conversation about the facts regarding Christian history and Jewish beliefs.
Although Jews don’t believe in hell, Christian friends may continue to trouble your child, saying his soul is in danger. Again, point out that there are many different religions practiced here in our own community as well as around the world, each with different beliefs. As your child ages, you will undoubtedly talk about how different people view God and serve God. We Jews tend to focus on justice. That is why we have a book of laws (Torah) and books explaining the laws (Talmud and rabbinic writings). Other religions also believe in justice, but they believe in other core ways of performing their service to God. If you ask a Christian what their core message is, I have found that they typically say, ‘Love, it’s all about love.’ A great message, and one that Judaism embraces, too. So we are all similar and yet unique.
Do kids still say this kind of stuff? Yes, because that’s what they are being taught. They are not being mean. In their eyes, they are being informative. So your child should respond with more information, not fear or defensiveness. Each child, your Jewish one and his Christian friend, can discuss these important topics with their respective parents. Dialogue is a good thing. My own children were told they were going to hell, one in elementary school and the other in high school. Naturally, these conversations were different and took an age-appropriate direction. Neither child was distressed. We have extended family members who are Christian, which had no impact on our relationships.
The Jewish child who is told by a family member that he or she or a parent is going to hell is in a different situation, but that does not sound like a concern in your family. I feel confident that the conversation will go smoothly.