Aaron Starr
Rabbi, Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Instiitute

When Our Own Strength Fails Us

When Our Own Strength Fails Us: Reorganizing the American Jewish Community after October 7

Two months after October 7, with the meteoric rise in antisemitism and antisemitic acts throughout North America and the world, it is obvious that what American Jews considered to be our strengths as a Jewish community were insufficient to address the current crisis. Our educational plans have proven naïve to the reality of antisemitism on the left and the right; our training of children and adults alike in necessary skills for Jewish life was clearly insufficient to address that reality; and our systems of communication were not up to the task of explaining the Jewish narrative or helping journalists to understand the crux of the issues in the Middle East. Given that, and given the extent of fear and anxiety that many Jews feel today, what do Jewish leaders and Jewish institutions need to do to address our new reality?

After lighting the Chanukiyah (Chanukah menorah) each night of the Festival of Lights, Jews traditionally sing the thirteenth century poem, Maoz Tzur, or what is often referred to as the Jewish “Rock of Ages.” In addition to expressing our gratitude for God’s help, Maoz Tzur reminds us that the great redemptions of the Jewish People began when individual Jews overcame fear and anxiety, innovating and organizing, to meet the new threats of their day. Moses, Esther and Mordecai, and the Maccabees all went to great lengths in the cause of protecting the Jewish people, and God rewarded them and all Jews for their efforts. In these difficult times, we are similarly obligated to act by turning to new pathways when our own strengths fail us.

In America, Maoz Tzur took on renewed life in its English form, with an adaptive translation by twentieth century scholars Marcus Jastrow and Gustav Gottheil based on a German version of the song.[1] In religious school and in the synagogue sanctuary, we sing, “Rock of Ages let our song, praise Thy saving power. Thou, amidst the raging foes, wast our sheltering tower.” Then we continue, with gusto, “Furious they assailed us, but Thine arm availed us; And Thy Word broke their sword, when our own strength failed us.”

Some two months after terrorists committed against Israel the October 7 atrocities, Israelis are beginning to assess the failures in Israel that allowed such a surprise attack, and we in the United States are beginning to assess the failures that created an environment for antisemitic rhetoric, vandalism, and violence to flourish. While Hamas and the unending existence of antisemitism clearly deserve the blame for our suffering, whenever tragedy strikes Jews nevertheless search our own souls to determine the ways by which we might have inadvertently opened ourselves to our enemies’ attacks, and thereby (hopefully) to mitigate current and future vulnerabilities.[2]

Israelis will determine for themselves what new paths must be taken. In North America, however, if we are to address the contemporary antisemitism that will not fade away even when Israel has defeated Hamas, and if we are to continue American support for the State of Israel in the near and long-term future, then revised education, new training, and well-organized communication are the areas in which the Jewish communities of North America must invest.


Whereas for a generation we contended with antisemitism as a mostly secondary concern – dismissing Jew-hatred as the fodder of White Supremacists and neo-Nazis and mostly ignoring the expressed aims of Iran, Hamas, the BDS movement, and others to kill Jews and destroy Israel, our children are now growing up in a world in which antisemitism is tolerated and promulgated on the right and the left. In addition, then, to the knowledge and skills children study to become bar or bat mitzvah, our children’s learning must include lessons on historical and contemporary antisemitism; in-depth analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and a strong identification with the historical Jewish narrative of overcoming oppression and violence. We need to teach that resilience as a Jewish value is expressed by the deepening of commitment to Jewish practice and Jewish institutions.

With Jewish youth groups and Jewish summer camps the most successful avenues of informal Jewish education, advisors and camp counselors will need training in how to help our young people explore the complexities of Jewish and Palestinian narratives, ultimately helping Jewish youth to understand the necessity of supporting Israel’s right to exist in peace and security and to see themselves within the story of the Jewish people. Our young people must learn that Judaism puts the protection of life above almost everything else, but that if our enemies force us to choose between Jewish life and the life of another, we choose to protect our family and to recognize that the burden of guilt in doing so rests on our enemies. That said, we need to help our teens and even adults to know that it is acceptable and appropriate to challenge the policies and procedures of a democracy – even and especially a Jewish democracy – but that frustration and disagreement within a democracy do not undermine its purpose for existence.

Mindful of this, before college, every teenager should participate in a month-long (or more) organized visit to the Jewish state, with the goal of building relationships between Israeli and American teens and Israeli and American families to help Jews on both sides of the Atlantic to deepen their sense of familial obligation toward each other.

Likewise, recognizing the value that a rich Jewish education offers our children, parents and community leaders must place a greater value on Jewish day school, especially for teenagers. In fact, the hours available in day school and the pursuit of a dual Jewish and secular curriculum are the best chance to prepare our children to lead rich Jewish lives and to serve as staunch defenders of the Jewish people. And, as sad as it is to consider this, Jewish day schools for our teenagers might be the best way to keep them physically safe now that bullying and harassment of Jews in high schools are on the rise. Day schools at all levels need to educate their students about the reasons for the birth of the State of Israel, the visions of Israel’s founders, and the complexities of the conflict between Jews and Arabs over the last century. Community leaders and central communal institutions will need to find ways to make a day school education affordable for every Jew, and curricular materials will need to be prepared and distributed.

Of course, because the vast majority of Jewish children attend supplementary schools, parents of children who do not attend day school must demand their teens to continue learning even their bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies so that ample time can be devoted to preparing our teens for the challenges they will experience as Jews on the college campus and beyond. Central agencies and synagogues will need to invest in curricular resources, teachers’ manuals, and teacher training to accommodate the imperative of this need. Parents of children who attend supplementary school should recognize that attending religious services, participating in the life of the synagogue, and practicing Judaism in the home are necessary complements to their children’s religious education.

Lastly, we must return to teaching our children that family comes first – and that our family includes Jewish people around the world. We must find the language to teach more of a focus on “You shall love your neighbor (i.e., your fellow Jew) as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) than on “You shall love the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:19), without abdicating our obligation toward the stranger. As the last two months have shown, if we are not for ourselves, who will be for us?[3]


Unfortunately, today, education about Israel and its conflicts is only the starting point. Jewish communities, including camps, schools, and synagogues, must invest in vast training opportunities for teens and adults in crisis de-escalation, organizing counter-protests, debate techniques, and even self-defense skills. Simply labeling someone an antisemite is no longer a viable path to protect Jews and the Jewish community from those calling for Israel’s or the Jews’ destruction. The Jewish people must be well trained, well prepared, and well organized to protect us and our children.

With that in mind, let us recognize that pithy or poignant social media posts circulate mostly in exclusively Jewish echo chambers, achieving the worthwhile goal of uniting Jews as one people with a shared history and a shared future; there is a value in that. However, explaining the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the current war against Hamas, requires sharing with non-Jewish friends the evidence and examples from the last twenty years (or more) that are more than enough to justify Israel’s actions.

Jewish communities must invest in well-trained and highly organized public relations departments that can present on camera and in the broader print media the Jewish narrative. These PR departments must also be able to partner with synagogues and agencies to organize the broader Jewish community, empowering every person able with the task of thanking elected officials who support Israel’s right to exist in safety and challenging news organizations that create false equivalencies between Israel’s and Hamas’s causes and actions.[4] Even more impactful, we might ask the same of our non-Jewish friends, non-Jewish family, and in particular, non-Jewish clergy partners who share in our struggle and who recognize that while the cruel often start by afflicting the Jews, rarely do they end there.

We must recognize the spread of hate on TikTok and other social media platforms and find ways to produce our own materials that can travel beyond Jewish echo chambers to establish a broader presence for messages of peace, life, joy, freedom, liberty, and the right to be a free people in our own land.

Furthermore, combating antisemitism requires us to become advocates for free speech especially on the college campus, challenging initiatives that, for example, practice reductionism of speech and create false binaries of oppressor/oppressed or colonizer/colonized, to encourage the free and respectful exchange of ideas.[5] This will require Jews to live with a certain degree of discomfort in hearing narratives and perspectives with which we disagree, but a commitment to the first amendment will, in the long run, benefit Jews. At the same time, our lawyers must become experts in differentiating between free speech and illegal conduct and must pursue action against those who engage in illegal conduct. As Yehuda Kurtzer, co-president of the Shalom Hartman Institute has pointed out, uncomfortable does not always mean unsafe.[6] We must learn to become resilient in the face of discomfort so that we can more productively protect ourselves when we are unsafe.

Rather than abandon institutions of higher education, donors and alumni must demand that in exchange for support, universities and colleges should ensure that all their students receive a genuinely liberal education and feel safe to learn and to speak.[7] If major donors want to support university athletics or theater departments, they should be encouraged to match those donations with similar (or, ideally, greater) gifts to the Hillel or Jewish institution serving students. We must increase our investment in Jews and Judaism at institutions of higher learning.

Speaking of investing, the Jewish community must increase and expand its investment in hard security measures, from security guards to cameras and more. We must work with local, regional, and national law enforcement and be sure to thank in word and in deed those who put themselves on the line for our protection. We must also invest wisely in the American political process, working to promote candidates on the national who favor stable institutions of democracy and working on the local level to ensure that reasonable minded people are elected to city councils and school boards. More Jews need to run for local office and appreciate the impact those roles can play in stabilizing and strengthening communities. Political instability and extremism at all levels of government have always and will continue to be a great threat to Jewish lives and prosperity.

Reorganizing for Today … and Tomorrow

If we are to address the contemporary antisemitism that will not fade away even when Israel has defeated Hamas, and if we are to continue American support for the State of Israel in the near and long-term future, then revised education, new training, and well-organized communication are the areas in which the Jewish communities of North America must invest.

Just as Maoz Tzur reminds us during Chanukah, the redemption of the Jewish people requires individuals to stand up for the protection of the Jewish people, innovating and organizing to meet the new threats of the day. When we do so, let us pray that God will meet us halfway so that, truly, God’s word and our words will break our enemies’ swords, even when our own strength fails us.

 [1] “Maoz Tzur (Rock of Ages)” at Jewish Heritage Online Magazine. Retrieved January 13, 2006.

[2] See BT B’rachot 5a.

[3] From Mourning to Meaning: Remembering the Holocaust Today | Opinion |

[4] Credit to Susan Kozik Klein for this idea.

[5] See David L. Bernstein, Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews (2022).

[6] Yehuda Kurtzer Facebook post, 10/31/23.

[7] Invest in Democracy – SAPIR Journal

About the Author
Aaron Starr is a rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan and a senior rabbinic fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. A member of the Conservative Movement's Rabbinical Assembly and the Michigan Board of Rabbis, Rabbi Starr is author of the books, "Don't Forget to Call Home: Lessons from God and Grandpa on a Life of Meaning," "Taste of Hebrew," and "Because I'm Jewish I Get to ...".
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