Should your child wear a kippah in public? - opinion

The more our children and we retreat, antisemites will smell that fear and advance to further bully and intimidate.

 THE WRITER participates in a march on the Brooklyn Bridge in January 2020, which was organized in response to rising antisemitism in New York and New Jersey. (photo credit: Rabbi Elchanan Poupko)
THE WRITER participates in a march on the Brooklyn Bridge in January 2020, which was organized in response to rising antisemitism in New York and New Jersey.
(photo credit: Rabbi Elchanan Poupko)

I recently flew from New York to Toronto, a flight that usually has several Orthodox passengers. I was shocked to see something I had never seen on that flight before: Kids whom I knew were Orthodox were wearing baseball caps instead of kippot.

It confirmed what I had heard in a recent conversation with American Jewish students – boys and girls – ages 12-17: they all told me they would not wear a Star of David or kippah in public out of safety concerns. So, to the many parents wondering if they should let their child wear a kippah or Star of David, I say we cannot leave this all to our children.

With the sharp rise in antisemitism, it would be a historic injustice to leave our children fending for themselves, asking whether or not they should wear Jewish symbols in public. Before having a conversation about what kids should be doing, we must have a conversation about adults. We all have a responsibility here.

To that end, I would strongly argue that if indeed Jewish children fear displaying their Judaism in public, every single adult has the responsibility to display their Judaism in public, whether they did so beforehand or not. This has both a practical and psychological impact. The more we normalize Jewish visibility, the more that will trickle down and allow younger people to do so as well. It also means that the adults are on the frontlines of addressing any threat.

Asking all Jewish adults to wear their Jewish symbols in public is something I do not take lightly. It might be easier for a six-foot man with some martial arts training to practice this than others. Yet, there is no one way for everyone to express their Judaism publicly.

A man wearing a kippah listens to speakers during an anti-Semitism protest at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate (credit: REUTERS)A man wearing a kippah listens to speakers during an anti-Semitism protest at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate (credit: REUTERS)

If you don’t feel comfortable riding the subway with a Star of David at 11 p.m., it does not mean you should not do so at 3 p.m. If displaying your Judaism in a public location, you can surely do it in a less public yet visible area. Displaying your Judaism can take place on your social media and digital interactions, your choice of restaurants, vacations and entertainment.

If there is a place you do not feel like you can express your Judaism, you should not be patronizing that place. Whichever way it is, the calling of our time and our greatest responsibility to the next generation is to normalize the expressing of our Judaism in public. 

We must remember that we only live the Jewish lives we lead thanks to countless sacrifices generations of Jews have made toward that end. The least we owe the next generation is a small measure of sacrifice.

ADDITIONALLY, IF young Jews are afraid to show their Jewishness publicly, we cannot let that go silently. Jewish children afraid to display their Judaism in New York in 2022 is a stain on the society we live in that our society knows that. I firmly believe there are enough decent people, Jewish and non-Jewish, who would be deeply disturbed by this, some of which would take action to change this.

A society in which children need to fear for their safety for expressing who they are cannot be considered liberal or tolerant. The broader community must grapple with the question of why it is that Jewish children fear for their safety in their museums, theaters and parks. It is society’s responsibility to address this question, yet broader society cannot do so unless we do more to bring it to their attention and hold them to account.

Finally, to the issue regarding children displaying their Judaism in public, needless to say, only parents should make determinations that affect their own children’s safety. Yet, as a parent, I can say that I do and will make sure my children and I display our Judaism at all times. We cannot afford to give our children a Judaism of fear and retreat. 

The more our children and we retreat, antisemites will smell that fear and advance to further bully and intimidate. We must all unite in the effort to make sure our children can, and do, publicly and proudly display their Judaism in public.

Finally, I am reminded of a Talmudic tale told in the second century during Vespasian’s crushing oppression of Jews living in Israel and his outlawing of any Jewish practice. When asked why he was still teaching Torah under the strict restrictions on Judaism, Rabbi Akiva shared the following story. 

Once, a fish was swimming in water, fearing and fleeing a fisherman’s net. A fox walking on the banks of the water saw the distressed fish and called out, “Why don’t you come out here to the land where you don’t have to fear the fisherman’s net, and where I can protect you?” The fish responded with an obvious answer, saying, “If things are tough for me in a place that supports my survival, they will be far tougher in a place adverse to my survival.”

Judaism has survived many adverse situations. Yet we cannot expect our children to live as proud Jews while asking them to live in fear. It is incumbent on us to make sure the next generation has a life free of fear and is blessed to live as proud Jews. That effort requires every one of us to make the effort for that. Bringing ourselves and our children into a retreating Judaism will backfire against them and us in the long term.

The writer is an eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is a member of the executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America.