Day school strong

85 years after Kristallnacht, we’re building a strong Jewish future 

In Short

Proud, educated Jewish children like the ones so powerfully present at the March for Israel promise us a strong Jewish future.

Yesterday I joined more than 12,000 Jewish day school students, along with faculty and families from roughly 100 schools, convening in Washington, D.C., for the March for Israel. It was the largest gathering of Diaspora Jews ever, and day school students formed a substantial and vocal part of delegations from across North America. Numerous day school alumni led Hillel student delegations as well. 

When Prizmah joined an incredible partnership of youth and student organizations to galvanize young people to be at the heart of the gathering, we never imagined the overwhelming passion and determination, the sense of pride and heartfelt support for Israel, that the day school community would show. Entire schools canceled classes to attend and chartered dozens of buses. Students traveled enormous distances to take a powerful stand for Israel. For anyone who doubts the commitment of young people to Israel, or the ability of our schools to foster confidence and pride, here was their answer. The students flooded the march with their flags held high and spoke boldly from the stage during the youth pre-rally. 

Talia Bodner, an alumna of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School, shared these poignant words from the stage: “This is about students on campuses. This is about day schools, and youth groups, and gap years, and camps, and our children and family. This is about all of us who came from around the country to cry out in the face of insanity. We are Jews proudly, and we will defend Israel loudly.”

As I listened to speaker after speaker show solidarity for Israel and for the hostages, and condemn the rising tide of antisemitism, I could not help but travel back just one week in my mind to a different yet equally historic event. 

Kristallnacht, whose 85th anniversary we commemorated last week, was the day that changed my mother’s life forever. Only one and a half years old when Kristallnacht happened, she was separated from her parents for six years, spending part of World War II in Paris as a “hidden child.” To mark the anniversary of Kristallnacht, I had the honor of accompanying my mother to Buckingham Palace, where she received the prestigious honor of Member of the Order of the British Empire from King Charles III for her impactful work in Holocaust education and remembrance. Never has her devotion to Jewish life and education felt more important than it does today. 

King Charles presents the MBE medal to the author’s mother, Yvonne Bernstein, at Buckingham Palace last week. Courtesy/Paul Bernstein

On the day of my mother’s honor, the London sky was gray, a symbolic reflection of the reality that we still live in a time of fear affecting Jews worldwide, fuelled by an acute sense of isolation rupturing decades of progress and integration in the post-Holocaust world. In the United States, on college campuses, in workplaces and in schools, Jews feel unsafe due to the vocal antisemitism being expressed in what were formerly considered safe spaces. Friends and colleagues are shunning members of our community for being unapologetically Jewish and standing up for Israel. The growth in attacks on Jews in recent years, the horror of the Oct. 7 massacre killing more Jews in a single day than at any time since the Holocaust, and the wave of antisemitism that followed, leaves us fearing for our future.

Jewish day schools in North America have felt the sting of this crisis in countless ways. They are, once again, the strength at the core of their communities: providing safe spaces for students and their families; standing up for Israel; welcoming Israelis seeking refuge from the war; delivering deep learning in secular and Jewish studies; and supporting alumni who are leaders of Jewish life on campus, in business, or fighting for our homeland in the IDF.

As showcased so beautifully at the March for Israel, our schools teach us to spread love to combat hate. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l focused on education as the centerpiece of how Jews have survived for millennia: “To defend a country, you need an army. But to defend a civilisation, you need schools.”

Combating antisemitism is indeed best done through education, awareness and connection to the world around us. “We work for these things in our Jewish schools,” he wrote. “We give our children confidence in who they are, so that they can handle change without fear and keep learning through a lifetime… Schools are about more than what we know and what we can do. They are about who we are and what we must do to help others become what they might be. The world our children will inherit tomorrow is born in the schools we build today.”

As I reflect on this great honor bestowed on my mother and the strong state of Jewish schools, I am hopeful about the future of the Jewish community. I am shattered by all that has been taken from us in the past 40 days; and yet I know that proud, educated Jewish children like the ones so powerfully present and leading the March for Israel promise us a strong Jewish future, as they have throughout the generations. Their connection to both Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael is only getting stronger. 

Paul Bernstein is CEO of Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools