Since October 7, Jewish educators and clergy are experiencing what took place in Israel both personally and professionally. While reacting to the latest news regarding friends and family in Israel, we are also giving support to many of those in our communities who are shocked, angry, frightened and – also – emboldened to take action.
It’s clear that nearly four weeks in, the war is going to be long, its aftermath will be even longer, and Israel and the Jewish people will be forever changed. Jewish education outside of Israel, too, will be forever changed. Dedicated to building “positive Jewish identity,” our mission and supporting educational frameworks from prior to October 7 now seem jarringly dissonant. Our field will have to thoughtfully react, pivot, and rebuild because our Jewish communities need us now more than ever.
As a Reform Jewish rabbi-educator in the supplemental synagogue program setting, here is what is already shifting.
The Notion of Belonging
A framework developed by LOMED over a decade ago aspired for our learners to Know (Jewish things), Do (Jewish things), Believe (that Jewish things are important), and Belong….to a real Jewish community. A lofty and essential goal, “getting” Jews to belong ostensibly positioned Jewish educators in the “Jewish sales department.” Judaism is exciting, meaningful, engaging, and “fun”…Please Join Us! We considered everyone to be on a path and believed deep down that the Jewish seeds you plant today might indeed blossom into the positively engaged Jews of tomorrow. Always wanting to “close the deal,” we’d accommodate challenging after school schedules and family priorities and would feel successful when those in our communities engage and join us.
Prior to October 7, Jews in our liberal synagogue communities had a choice of whether to belong. But post October 7, belonging to the Jewish community has now been chosen for us. The Hamas mission regarding Jews is clear. It – similar to the Nazis in WWII – does not matter to them if you are an engaged Jew, Jew-“ish” or not even interested. You are a Jew whether you like it or not. In these short few weeks, Jewish belonging for many has taken on more significance…it is a place where Jews feel understood, seen, and safe. While our product of belonging has changed, it is needed more than ever.
The Notion of Relevance
We as Jewish salespeople speak of Jewish relevance, as we are taught in Pirkei Avot: Turn it over, and [again] turn it over, for all is therein…and do not move away from it, for you have no better portion than it (5:22). And so, we are constantly searching for the next “in” – the latest movie, sports metaphor, cultural reference, or social media trend – to make the sales pitch for Judaism as relevant. Are you a musician? We have music for you! Want to change the world? Come do it with us! Something going on with your friendships and relationships? Judaism can guide you!
Prior to October 7, we had to make the case for Judaism’s relevance. But post October 7, relevance pounded on every Jewish person’s door and has boldly appeared at our doorsteps. Being Jewish for many right now is a raw experience. In my community, I see many Jews feel comradery with other Jews. Many discovered they were only one to two degrees removed from the dead, those serving, injured or kidnapped. We have students on college campuses and their very concerned parents. The questions of “Why do they hate us?” “Am I safe?” “What can I do?” are now deeply personal, immediate, and relevant. Now more than ever, Jewish educational spaces are places to ask and ponder these questions.
The Shift from Universal to Particular
Reform Judaism in particular has a long history and commitment to universal values and balancing them with our Jewish particularistic ones. Our product used to include selling the message of how to balance our universal values along with our particularistic Jewish ones, especially when making choices about tzedakah, social action, and social justice. While there are certainly some for whom October 7 has meant a doubling down on universalist values, for many others, October 7 has tipped them towards an emphasis on particularism, Jewish peoplehood and tribalhood. Jewish educational spaces must now engage in the undertaking of mitigating these important conversations and be cognizant of this shift.
The Shift Away from Israel Travel
An anchor for building Jewish identity – especially for our more highly engaged B’nai Mitzvah families, teens and emerging adults – has been travel to Israel. As salespeople, travel to Israel was one of our most high-quality products. Yes, Israel travel has at times been criticized as presenting a “Jewish Disneyland” that perhaps does not fully represent some of Israel’s realities. But, overall, the intensity of the experience of traveling to Israel has transformed hundreds of thousands of American Jews for decades.
Sadly, our post October 7 world is even more intense and more complicated vis-à-vis Israel. While there are certainly those who desperately want to go to Israel at this moment, there are those for whom the “sale” will be tough or nearly impossible for the foreseeable future. But visiting or not visiting should not define one’s relationships with Israel for our learners and families. We as educators need to sell that being in relationship with Israel – while complicated and difficult – is more important than ever.
Please Don’t Make Us Sell the ’70s and ’80s Model
I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s. The pervasive Jewish message was “the Holocaust happened; therefore you need to be Jewish” and it comported with the overall good vs. evil Cold War milieu. Those messages were eventually balanced (in my life) by the joyful experiential Jewish educational experiences found in youth group, at Jewish summer camp, my Israel trip, Hillel and more.
Amongst the many things I fear post October 7, I fear slipping back into a Judaism-through-guilt-and-fear in which the only thing we say is “don’t let Hamas win.” Judaism through fear is overly simplistic and will not address the deepened and relevant need for Jewish belonging, vocabulary, values, and way of life in the long term. Now more than ever, our children, teens, and families need a sophisticated approach to connect with Israel and to identify and live proudly as Jews.
Our product has shifted, but the need is great. And the work is just beginning.
 LOMED, Jewish Education Project, ~2011