At this inflection point for Jewish identity formation, we must resist defaulting to an old paradigm

For many decades, the task of Jewish educators has been not only the transmission of Jewish content, but imbuing a sense of positive and joyful Jewish identity and belonging as well. One of my fears post-Oct. 7 is that Jewish education is going to return to the mindset of the 70s and 80s, one which was based on a scarcity-focused, guilt-ridden and fearful worldview: The Holocaust happened, so you must be Jewish. If you aren’t actively Jewish, you’ll finish what Hitler started. Don’t let Hitler win. 

This approach was reactionary to and typical for the time in which we lived. In the Cold War period, ours was a world of diametrically opposed goods and evils. The U.S. was good, the Soviet Union was bad. The Nazis were perpetrators of evil, and Jews were idealized as victims. When we began to hear the unfathomable stories of Holocaust survivors, we took on their trauma and promised Never Again. Once more, our job was to remember and blot out Amalek. Blotting out Amalek fell easily into the good-evil paradigm, with the State of Israel as the underdog victor (1948! 1967! 1973!). Because of the unimaginable scale of the horrors of the Holocaust and the subsequent Israel narrative, the educational approach was simple: You’re a Jew, yes? So be Jewish. Because we can’t let Hitler win. 

Over the years, however, supplemental Jewish education evolved beyond a simple yes-no proposition. Our demographics changed. Judaism became extremely voluntary. Being engaged in and belonging to the Jewish community in North America meant many more things than just simple synagogue membership and participation. Our approach to engendering Jewish identity is nuanced, because that identity is recognized as a shifting and multifaceted thing as well as part of a “broader self concept.” In the last few decades, the endeavor of Jewish identity formation has included the proliferation and blend of experiential Jewish education programs and approaches: the expansion of year-round teen programming, Jewish summer camp, and Israel trips and other travel programs. 

At the same time, many of us made serious innovations in our Jewish supplemental education settings to make Judaism joyful, engaging and relevant. As for Israel education, while some continued limiting its scope to teaching about the sites, tastes and people of Israel, others embraced more nuance, delving into the modern history and current events in the country.

Jewish education also experienced a shift from the singular focus on the existential good vs. evil and Jews-as-victims paradigms of the past. We are challenged to not only teach what took place during the Holocaust, but to connect it with our learners’ identities and self-concepts. The goal for my synagogue’s supplemental learners is certainly first to understand the facts of the Holocaust, using primary texts, pictures and videos; but knowing (and being able to teach others) is not enough. I also want them to emotionally connect with this history and henceforth incorporate a special set of “Jewish glasses” into their identity and self-concept as they exist in our greater world. 

A very difficult issue to face right now is that some of what is taking place today on college campuses is the result of how Jews – on both sides of the Israel-Hamas conflict – understand the narrative of victimhood and genocide, good and evil. Our young people have a much more complex sense of when to flex Jewish particularistic values as opposed to their universalist ones. Even while facing the black-and-white, yes-no identity that today’s antisemitism has thrust upon us, some of our learners simply will not buy into the proposition Jews are the victims when it comes to the Oct. 7 attacks, ergo be Jewish because we can’t let Hamas win. If we use the old paradigm, the simplistic yes-no and good vs. evil entry point into Jewish identity that was used in previous generations, we will lose young people in the process. 

What is the alternative?

In his foundational book Education and Experience, John Dewey wrote, “There is an intimate and necessary relation between the process of actual experience and education.” Educators help guide learners to unpack, process and reflect upon experiences. As JTS professor Jeff Kress enumerated a decade ago in the white paper “What is experiential Jewish education?” the developmental impact of an experience is maximized when there are: 

  1. Strong relationships and sense of community
  1. Engagement of emotions and spirit
  1. Multiple entry points
  1. Opportunities for reflection
  1. Connections with other experiences
  1. Authentic integration of Jewish content

Since Oct. 7, our children of all ages have been in the process of a significant and involuntary Jewish experience — one with many entry points and often tied to extreme emotions . Depending upon their age and how much they know, the massacre on Oct. 7 was different degrees of shocking and the ensuing war between Israel and Hamas varying shades of awful. Prayers may not feel like enough. Discerning what is factual information is difficult. Knowing that there are hostages who are children just like them is devastating. They are being accosted by their peers at school with statements such as “Oh, you’re Jewish.” “Jews are racist and hateful.” “Do you speak Hebrew? That’s the language of Zionism and Zionism is colonialism.” They are also overhearing conversations between adults about being Jewish and how they feel an increased connection to that identity.

Over the coming weeks, months and years, the task will be great for Jewish educators. We must equip ourselves with the reflection tools and emotional support for what is taking place now. We must also advance — through think tanks, research, trips to Israel and professional development programs — a post-Oct. 7 approach to Jewish identity formation. Such an approach must demonstrate sophistication and nuance, balancing our particularistic and universal values. It must enrich our teaching about Jewish peoplehood and Israel to include all the complexities of our covenantal relationship with the land. It also must engender a sense of belonging and obligation, without the yes-no proposition; offer our learners tools to face and combat growing antisemitism in our midst; and present the positive and joyful elements of Jewish values, holidays and ways of life.

In the wake of Oct. 7, should we remove the joy from Chanukah this year? Of course not. But it will indeed be different, and it will ironically be an opportunity to return to what Chanukah really celebrates. For years, its association for our North American children has been one of military heroism, celebration, and, of course, presents. Yet we know that it is about much more: It is a story about standing up for our values and commitment to our tradition. We learn that having power is a serious responsibility and endeavor. Finally, we are reminded that even in moments where the world seems most broken, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen: it’s through the cracks that the light gets in. 

Rabbi Eve Rudin Kleinman, RJE, is the director of education, youth and families at Larchmont Temple in Westchester, N.Y., a doctoral student in Jewish education at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a past board member of the Association of Reform Jewish Educators.