People stand in gallery of California Assembly
On Jan. 3, the first day of the 2024 legislative session, members of Jewish pro-cease-fire groups shut down the California Assembly. (Photo/Brooke Anderson for Jewish Voice For Peace)

Advice for families on navigating tough conversations about Israel and Gaza

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In the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack and subsequent war, tensions have been running high in the American Jewish community. In some cases, those tensions exist inside families. Parents, grown children and other family members have had uncomfortable, sometimes upsetting conversations about topics such as cease-fire, genocide and Israel’s right to self-defense.

Lauren Meltzer is a parent coach at the Center for Children and Youth, a program of Jewish Family and Children’s Services. She talked to J. about how the San Francisco-based JFCS is helping families navigate difficult discussions about the Israel-Hamas war.

What happened in your field after Oct. 7?

We started seeing a lot of parents that didn’t know how to talk to their children. They didn’t know how to protect their children. They didn’t know how to be in their home when they’re grieving. Like they were just really, really sad all the time.

Also, they started having conflicts with people they really cared about, like older children or in-laws or even their spouse, and they just didn’t know what to do.

Jews have had trauma around this forever, right? And so that’s incredibly triggering. With that, as you can imagine, comes a lot of anger, helplessness, isolation, fear of being silenced, or saying the wrong thing, grief and confusion.

We want to help parents and family members feel like there’s community and feel like there’s a safe space to talk and communicate, and then give them some tools.

What kinds of strategies do you suggest?

We give them tools to get regulated, because if you’re feeling triggered, it’s not going to be a good conversation.

I’d say be clear on what you’re really feeling, because I think sometimes people think they’re feeling anger when actually they’re feeling betrayal or they’re feeling disappointment. They need to be honest with themselves and understand what it is they’re bringing to the table.

Next is trying to find a safe place and time to have a conversation. You know, maybe it’s not your first dinner conversation, maybe it’s after dinner.

We’re also coaching people to be clear on what their family values are. If being close as a family is really important, then think about what kind of conversation is going to bring you closer rather than further away.

Then try to listen from a place of open-mindedness and curiosity and open heart.

Lauren Meltzer is a parent coach at JFCS. (Photo/Courtesy)
Lauren Meltzer is a parent coach at JFCS. (Photo/Courtesy)

What if that doesn’t work? What if conversations devolve into arguments?

If you’ve had a harsh conversation, or had harsh words, try being willing to apologize for that.

I mean, this is tough, it really is. That’s why at the very beginning of these conversations, you have to just acknowledge that people are trying to do their best.

If you make a mistake, you can ask for a redo. That’s another thing we try to talk about — there’s always redos.

If you have a conversation which goes awry, and people are left feeling not good, it’s generally because they’re not connecting with their loved ones in the way that they want to. And so by offering a redo it’s basically a chance to use the conversation in a way that allows you to try to understand each other and look for common values, as opposed to focusing on why you have a different opinion about the facts.

For some families, should the goal be to avoid conflict?

Absolutely. And that can feel isolating for some people. But sometimes that’s the thing that’s needed right now.

I think it’s just a really hard time. That’s why it’s super important that people continue to have self-compassion and try and meet their family members where they are.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.