The distress of seeing children being taught how to hide in classrooms

The distress of seeing children being taught how to hide in classrooms

Jewish kids in Melbourne will grow up thinking these drills are normal. I can’t blame schools for being prepared. Right now, social media should make anyone uneasy.

During my run for the Victorian parliament last year, I received an invitation to visit a nearby public school. The principal sought to discuss potential funding initiatives in the event of my election as the local representative. Surprisingly, the school, just a short walk from my home, was not somewhere I had previously visited.

Entering what I assumed to be the school’s main entrance, I ended up in the middle of a kindergarten classroom. The bemused teacher clarified my mistake and kindly guided me around the corner. She mentioned it was a common error made by visitors, as the school’s entrance was on the side of the building.

However, the entire episode deeply unsettled me, because I could never imagine a similar mistake in a Jewish institution.

In Australia, due to ongoing security threats, Jewish institutions fortify their gates with security measures such as guards, bollards, barbed wire and unyielding fences to protect their students.

At a Jewish school, it would not have been possible to wander in off the street and find myself in the middle of a kindergarten classroom. A security guard would have stopped me.

The reality of Jewish institutions in Australia is a challenge for other Australians to truly comprehend. Recent weeks, marked by renewed violence in Israel and Gaza, have intensified my unease whenever I walk into a Jewish institution. I don’t think average Australians realise that this enduring conflict resonates deeply with Jewish people across the globe, impacting them on many levels.

The reality of Jewish institutions in Australia is a challenge for other Australians to truly comprehend.

No matter where they are located, Jewish institutions can be deemed a target for actions that are occurring thousands of kilometres away.

When trouble brews in Israel, we’ve seen that its repercussions can swiftly reach our own communities. Swastikas daubed in public spaces, hateful chants like “gas the Jews” on the Opera House steps, and a disturbing tendency for many universities, supposed bastions of intelligence, to skirt clear of  unequivocal condemnation of antisemitism all serve as stark reminders of the reality we face.

Back in my childhood, I vividly recall fire safety drills at school. They were rather exciting – the siren blaring, the whole school gathering at the nearby park. These drills provided a welcome escape from my least favourite subjects, like maths, bringing a touch of joy to the monotony of my school day.

Sadly, today, schools and Jewish institutions are compelled to rehearse ever more alarming scenarios. My four-year-old daughter in kindergarten practiced concealing herself in a cupboard alongside her kinder classmates and teachers, a reflection of the unsettling times we live in.

And just last week, I was jolted by the experience of witnessing an ‘active shooter drill’ at my son’s Hebrew school. Picking him up early, I had a first-hand view of young children, some as young as five or six, being taught how to hide in their classrooms, out of sight, in the event of an active shooter entering a local Jewish institution.

It was a heart-wrenching sight. I thought it was terrifying.

It’s utterly awful that Jewish children growing up in Melbourne, Australia, one of the most tolerant and multicultural places on earth will grow up thinking that practising these drills are normal. This is totally abnormal, and a stark contrast to what should be a “normal” childhood should be.

And yet, I can’t blame Jewish institutions for being prepared. The lessons from tragedies like the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh and the Christchurch Mosque massacre emphasise the need for readiness and vigilance.

None of us want to see an overseas conflict spill into our local neighbourhoods. But trouble in Israel often places Jewish communities under a spotlight.

I recently wrote an article about my resignation from the Faith Communities Council of Victoria due to its  failure to issue even a single word of condemnation for the tragic loss of 1400 Jewish lives in Israel, citing a lack of unanimous agreement among their members. This episode was deeply painful. These were individuals I had engaged with, shared concerns, and formed bonds with. And yet, they chose not to show solidarity to the Jewish community in our time of need.

At the moment, a small dip into content being posted on the war on social media will make anyone feel uneasy.

I feel vulnerable about  being Jewish.

During this challenging period, what I’m seeking from our friends is empathy and support. I’m truly grateful for those friends who reached out, inquiring about my wellbeing when it mattered most. It’s important to acknowledge that the Jewish community is going through a tough time and could use all the understanding and compassion available.

With regard to  the silence of those who have not reached out, perhaps they would feel differently if they understood what the lives of many Jewish people are like right now.

Full of fear and insecurity.

Illustrative photo: Students at London’s Simon Marks School