Creating Jewish memory

This piece was adapted from remarks delivered by the author at the Jewish Education Project’s recent spring event.

Many people have known what it was like to live through historic times. Now, sadly, we all do. To the many pivotal moments in Jewish history — 586 BCE, 70 CE, 1492, 1939, 1967, 1973 — we now add 2023.

How tragic it is that as educators we knew exactly what to do on Oct. 7? We’ve learned from Columbine and Poway, Paris and Pittsburgh, George Floyd, and COVID — educators know how to respond in crisis. Educators put aside their families and often their own well-being and are there for their students, their campers, their youth group, and the children and families in their early childhood centers.

To understand Jewish educators today is to understand what’s really at stake right now. Jewish educators have always known that it’s part of their responsibility to teach history. But think about it for a moment: Today we are teaching history while living history.

And yet, it’s not history that we’re actually teaching. As legendary Jewish educator Avraham Infeld says, “Jews don’t have history; they have memory.” What Jewish educators — and dare I suggest nearly all of us — are doing is creating Jewish memory.

bestdesigns/Getty Images

What happens on campuses now, what is being said in classrooms, what is being daubed on sidewalks — we will teach our children and students how to respond to these vile and disheartening events. Our overwhelming obligation is to instill our youth and all of the Jewish people with confidence and pride, wisdom and a love of what it means to be Jewish, with Israel integral in our individual and collective identities.

We can’t simply pursue this obligation in the ways we did previously. Why? Because those ways only worked to varying degrees of success and because young Jews live in a new reality defined both by the brutal acts of Oct. 7 and the subsequent reactions to it by many of their non-Jewish peers. The moment demands a new approach to Jewish education. Here is how at The Jewish Education Project we are working anew to meet our sacred obligation:

  • Teen education reimagined: We’re reimagining Israel education with immersive programs so high school teens go on to college knowledgeable and confident when faced with anti-Israel hostility. Amid fears and travel challenges, RootOne teen travel to Israel will continue next year stronger than ever, strengthening ties between North American and Israeli teens (In fact, some teens are even traveling this year).
  • Dedicated approach to public and independent schools. We’re proactively expanding our purview into secular school environments to give Jewish and non-Jewish students a deeper understanding of Jewish history and religion that can counter rampant disinformation. We know we are late to the game and must be aggressive in playing catch up in an environment dominated by social media engagement.  
  • Renewed commitment to supplemental Jewish education. We’re reinvigorating supplemental Jewish education, where most North American children still get their Jewish education. These offerings will be designed to inspire today’s Jewish families to engage with Jewish learning. If their children are into the outdoors, arts, sports or other interests, we need to customize Jewish learning experiences to reflect those interests. 
  •  Democratize Jewish education. We know that access to Jewish education is NOT equal for everyone, so we’re democratizing it with online platforms to make it accessible to all who want to participate in Jewish experiences, regardless of geography, schedules, or other common barriers.
  • Help all young Jews thrive. We’re ensuring all yeshiva students in New York receive a quality education so that they can thrive in today’s world.

We’re not waiting for the next crisis, not on our watch. We’re looking ahead to a better future rooted in knowledge, pride and fortitude.

As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory stated, “History is an event that happened sometime else to someone else. Memory is my story — something that happened to me and is part of who I am.”

We have heard many voices over the last eight months. Each one is unique, and each must be remembered. But every Israeli I met shared one common refrain: Since Oct. 7, Israel is forever changed. The question, and indeed the challenge in front of all of us here and beyond, is: Are we ready to make the changes to Jewish education that we know are necessary? By adapting existing education models and innovating new ones, we will be able to not only tell the history of Oct. 7, but shape the memory of these days forever more.

I’m inspired by the lyrics of Eden Golan, Israel’s Eurovision hero:

Don’t need big words

Only prayers

Even if it’s hard to see

You leave me always one small light

This is our moment and all of you are our light. This is the time to support Jewish education as a community like we have never done before. I am the proud CEO of the Jewish Education Project because we were not only built and developed to meet this challenge — but to lead our community into the future.

We will not be judged by what happened to us as a people, or even the aftermath of Oct. 7. But we will be judged by how we choose to respond to those events.

David Bryfman is CEO of the Jewish Education Project.