David Bryfman

A new Anne Frank moment

Jewish educators must teach our youth to be confident and competent in their Jewish selves and in how they relate to Israel
Anne Frank. (via Jewish News)
Anne Frank. (via Jewish News)

Behind closed doors, I used to refer to it as the “Anne Frank moment.” This is when a teacher in a public or independent school, usually in an English or Social Studies class, presents “The Diary of Anne Frank” to his or her students. Sometimes, the teacher might have given the parents and students a heads-up. Other times, students are caught off-guard for what may be their first encounter with the Holocaust.

But the “Anne Frank moment” that I mentioned was not the actual teaching of the diary in these schools. It is rather precisely at that moment when the Jewish kids in class, even the ones who have consciously not presented their Jewishness prior to this time, often have an awakening. Whether they wanted to be identified as Jewish is irrelevant; the combination of an internal spark, a presumptuous teacher question, or the sideway glance of an all-knowing classmate make that student feel like — and become known as — the “Jewish kid” in that classroom.

In 2023, the “Anne Frank moment” has been replaced by “October 7th.” For many Jewish students in public and independent schools throughout the world, the days and weeks after October 7th shined the spotlight on them, regardless of whether they wanted it. As teachers across the world grappled with how to talk about the war between Israel and Hamas, educators soon realized that with or without their lesson plans, people of all ages were talking about this conflict.

With no definitive data yet available, we know anecdotally that this attention was not universally tinged with negative repercussions. That said, we know that in many cases it has been confrontational, and that not all of our youth (and their parents) have felt equipped or empowered to confront these new realities.

For many Jewish students in these schools, often in ZIP codes with many fellow Jews, they are not completely isolated. But because of the vastness of Jewish migratory patterns, there are also many Jewish students who are one of a handful, and sometimes the only Jewish kid in that room. Now, in early stages of a post October 7th world, we must recognize that as a community, we owe all of our Jewish youth a lot more than we have previously promised them.

Now it is time for us to declare that our children need to know more. It is time to realize that education about Israel should be in the same category as teaching the Jewish Bible, tradition, history, values, prayer, and language. Like all education, Israel education must be developmentally appropriate and deliberately designed to prepare our children for the world in which they inhabit. And when the war is over, we must double down as our community to ensure that all of our children have an opportunity to experience Israel for themselves.

Many Jewish educational settings for decades have prioritized universal values, often at the expense of Jewish connections. Whether it is a renewed Jewish consciousness because many of our people are being held hostage, or because only the Jewish nation state’s existence is being challenged, or because antisemitism does not discriminate between flavors of Jews, as a community, we must reclaim Jewish peoplehood alongside our principled universal commitments.

Also, for decades, Jews in Western societies have committed themselves to the institutions of the countries in which they live — and chief among them is the educational system. Unfortunately, circumstances have determined that we also need to reaffirm that the Jewish commitment to equitable education for all includes our children as well. Jewish students, like all students, deserve to learn in safe spaces that enable them to express their full selves and be nurtured to grow into the citizens that they deserve to be. We owe it to all of our youth to ensure that they are not subject to any form of education that either prejudices them or silences them.

Lastly, and also for decades, how these Jewish students respond to the “Anne Frank moment” has often become a defining moment in their Jewish identity journey. How could it not be? In the next few months and years, how Jewish youth respond to October 7th, in all of the places they find themselves, will have everlasting impact on the Jews that they are today and will become in the future. Jewish leaders and educators must equip and empower our youth at this critical moment in time. Our youth must become confident and competent in their Jewish selves, and how they relate toward Israel. We owe them nothing less.

About the Author
David Bryfman, PhD, is CEO of The Jewish Education Project in New York. He hosts the weekly livecast, Adapting: The Future of Jewish Education.
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