They pulled a knife on my son. How would you cope?
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My three sons had already been mugged. In the fourth attack, a robber pulled a knife.
It was midnight when my 17-year-old son came into my bedroom. I knew something was wrong - he looked really shaken up. "I got mugged tonight, mum." I tried not to panic, despite the sharp pain in the pit of my stomach. I had been here before; although we live in the leafy suburbs of Finchley, all three of my boys had previously been mugged. "Are you OK?" I asked tremulously.
"Yeah," he said, "just some scrapes and bruises. But this time they pulled a knife."
I can't describe the feelings that went through me the instant he said that word. Horror. Rage. An overwhelming urge to grab my son - a 6ft 1in rugby prop - and somehow stuff him back into my womb. A knife!
The word "knife" has become, for many parents, like the word "cancer" or "terrorist". The reports of teenage deaths from knife attacks have made it so. If I am honest, knife attacks on teenagers have been something that happens to other people in the news. Not to my children, and not to people we know.
"Tell me what happened," I said, in the calmest voice I could muster, trying to black out images of what could have been.
He and two friends had been walking home on a summer's weekday night near Mill Hill East in North London, when three youths approached them. One of them took him to the side and, pulling out a knife, said, "If you want to go home tonight, give me your phone." My son knew the phone was not worth any injury, and gave it up. Despite this, the mugger threw him to the ground and kicked him, but did leave without using the knife.
"When it happened I just froze," he said. "It was as if I was watching it all happen on a TV screen. I couldn't do anything. It was only after a few kicks and punches that I realised that I was the victim. I'm incredibly angry, but I also know that I was smart and lucky that nothing worse happened because I keep reading about those kids who were not so lucky."
"The problem," he continued, "is that there is nothing you can do. These punks are out there with knives and we just don't have a choice, and they know it. Nobody I know carries a knife, but sometimes it makes you think..." This was the anger talking; he and I both know that he would never carry a knife. But his anger, frustration, and humiliation are incredibly acute.
It has taken me years, but I've finally managed not to get hysterical when one of my three boys - 15, 17, and 21 - tell me they've been mugged. It's happened to them before, and to most of their friends. The last time for my 17-year-old had been a few years ago, when he had been attacked by a gang of boys in the middle of the afternoon in Mill Hill Park in London because they liked the look of his friend's watch.
I am horrified to say, my boys take it as part of living in London. "It is a rite of passage," said my 15-year-old son. "Most of my friends have been mugged, and many several times." One of his friends was waiting for the bus for school on Ballards Lane, Finchley, at eight in the morning when he was mugged. His attacker, in a bid to intimidate him, pushed him in the middle of the road and when he didn't relinquish his iPod, the youth then put on a knuckle-duster. The boy decided it was time to give up the iPod. Another, at University College School in Hampstead, does not walk or return from school wearing his blazer because it makes him stand out and a possible target.
My eldest son, 21, was even more dismissive. "It's just because of the media hysteria," he said cynically. "They know that stories about knife attacks sell papers. There's less knife crime now than there has been in the past."
To my surprise, he was right. According to the BBC news, knife crime has actually decreased over the past two years - overall. But it does appear that the profile of a typical knife crime is changing, with both the victims and the perpetrators now younger than before.
And - whether we parents know it or not - our children are adapting. Teenagers are well aware of the situation, more so than us, and many of them, especially at night, plan their routes accordingly. Some of my boys' friends told me about their coping strategies. "I have two phones, so I can give them a phone that doesn't have my sim card with all my numbers on it," said one. Another said: "I never use white headphones as they are a dead giveaway that you have an iPod." A third volunteered: "I always keep smaller change in my pocket and I hide my wallet." Interestingly, I remember doing that in New York back in the '70s.
Is it inevitable that our children will be attacked? One mother thinks so. Gloria Abramoff, who has 15-year-old twins, said: "Tragically I was relieved when my son was mugged, as I knew that living in London, it was almost an inevitability that it would happen. I was pleased that he was able to handle himself with confidence in the situation and he was not harmed. It is a sad indictment of the society we live in."
When I was a teenager, my mother was also concerned about my safety, but her worries were different. She warned me about reefers and the white slave trade. "Don't take any cigarettes without tips," she would say, lighting her Senior Service. "It might be a reefer, and before you know it you will wake up in a harem in the Middle East." But the reality, we knew, was different, and we never really had to develop proper coping strategies. Our children do.
As a parent, our first reaction is to wrap our kids in cotton wool and never let them out of the house. But clearly this is not practical. So we move into mentor mode, and begin to discuss prevention with them. We talk about street crime, what to do to avoid it, what to do if approached, how to react with intelligence rather than with hormones or emotion, the "no-brainer" of choosing to give up your phone, iPod, wallet - anything rather than your life. In the event, my kids seem to be better versed and more rational than we could have possibly imagined. But then they have thought about it, talked about it, rehearsed it. We haven't.
But if we cannot really help them with prevention, what can we do? How can we provide real, useful help?
The fact is that most teenagers do not have a clue as to what to do if someone they are with suffers a serious injury. So if we cannot help them prevent an attack, at least we can help them limit the consequences.
Many years ago, when, my youngest was just an infant, he suffered from febrile convulsions. Neither my husband nor I knew what to do. We had no training, no information and no experience. Though our child grew out of the condition without any ill effects, one of the changes for me was to take a first-aid course. A few years later, a friend and I started a company that offered first-aid courses to parents and care-givers. Last year, in response to a demand from schools and parents, we began offering first-aid courses for teenagers focusing on resuscitation, drug overdoses, alcohol poisoning and what to do if someone has been knifed.
The courses will not stop the attacks. Nor will the knowledge that my boys know what to do in an emergency remove my fear. But if I cannot wrap them up in cotton wool, at least I'll make sure they have the basic first-aid skills to cope in an emergency. It just might save their or another teenager's life.
Do you have similar experiences to share? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment on this article on our website, thejc.com. Roma Felstein is a journalist and a director of Safe and Sound, a first-aid training company. She can be contacted on 0208 445 8998 or at email@example.com; www.safeandsound.uk.net
Self-defence classes might help...
The realisation that knife crime is a real danger for Jewish children and teenagers has led to the formation of Streetwise, which aims to protect the safety and enhance personal development of Jewish children and teenagers.
The organisation, a partnership between Maccabi GB and the Community Security Trust, works with schools and youth groups to teach children the correct response if they are threatened with violence on the street.
Its programme includes courses and workshops in basic self-defence techniques and street awareness, taught by instructors trained in the Israeli martial art of Krav Maga.
Workshops also include personal-development sessions, examining youth issues such as peer pressure, antisemitism, body image and bullying.