Jewish educators have nightmares about Oct. 7

I am not a psychologist, psychotherapist, psychoanalyst or dream interpreter, so this article could go into the bucket of people writing something about which they actually know very little. I am, however, a Jewish educator with a strong personal and professional connection to Israel. That’s where this article begins.

A few years ago, I asked a psychologist whether it was normative for Jewish educators to have dreams that situated themselves within the Holocaust. I quickly learned that, regardless of whether this is or is not pervasive among my colleagues, it was seldom, if ever, spoken about — at least in public.

More recently, I was in Israel with some colleagues, processing our visit to Kfar Aza and the Nova Festival site and conversations with families of hostages and survivors of Oct. 7. Somehow it came up in conversation: You too? I haven’t slept in over 100 days without having had a dream or a nightmare as if I was there on Oct. 7. Shortly after that, I spoke at a conference to over 150 people involved in Israel education. I asked them to raise their hands if they had these dreams — ones in which they or a family member was a victim of the Oct. 7 terror. 

There was a pause. There was silence. There was discomfort. And then almost every person in the room raised their hand.

After spending considerable time in Israel post-Oct. 7, I know that this dream phenomenon is also certainly the case for many Israelis. We heard time and again on our visit about Israeli children returning to sleep in their parents’ beds after nightmares and fears of being abducted or attacked by terrorists. The trauma in Israel is very real and will not pass any time soon, largely because many Israelis are still living inside this conflict.

Of course, while Jews outside of Israel might experience similar nightmares, our experience isn’t comparable to Israelis living every day where the real nightmare occurred. That said, I have heard both Israelis and Jews outside of Israel speak about “survivor’s guilt,” the response to an event experienced by some people who survive a traumatic situation that others did not. These shared feelings among those inside and outside of Israel spotlight the Jewish Diaspora’s trauma in a post-Oct. 7 world.

Collective trauma is a well-documented phenomenon, and there is also a growing body of research related to epigenetics, defined broadly as the study of how behavior and environment can cause changes at the genetic level. While I am reluctant to make comparisons between Oct. 7 and the Shoah, research already exists describing the intergenerational trauma experienced by descendants of the Shoah.

I raise this topic not to revisit the argument about whether the Jews are a race or a people, but to begin asking questions about how the collective trauma of Oct. 7 might inform our broader understanding of Jewish Peoplehood and Jewish tribalism.

If a significant number of Jews around the world, at least for now evidenced by Jewish educators and communal professionals, are experiencing collective trauma manifested in dreams, nightmares and visions of their family members or themselves being slaughtered and taken captive by Hamas, is there not something that binds us together as a people that is far stronger than historical, cultural or religious ties?

I have also learned that Oct.7 has been particularly triggering for Jewish victims of sexual abuse. I am extremely underqualified to do more than bring attention to this specific trauma, except to say that this must be acknowledged and that individuals affected must be given every level of communal support possible. Adding further pain to this trauma is the abandonment many have felt by perceived allies who did not condemn the sexual violence of Oct. 7, further forcing Jews to consider their isolation in the world.

In this post-Oct.7 world, community leaders and funders must address the mental health and well-being of the Jewish people. Jewish educators and communal professionals need space, time and resources to process such trauma in order to be the best professional version of themselves. I also know that the vast majority of educators and professionals will hide behind their jobs and their missions in order to avoid confronting this trauma. As we saw during COVID, we are good at this “hiding” — and often lauded for it. After all, it means we are putting our learners and constituents above our own well-being. However, this approach is unwise; even the amateur psychologist in me knows that not dealing with trauma is not healthy.

Asking most Jews today, “How are you?” is one of the most challenging questions.  Asking a Jew, “Are you okay?” might elicit a deeper response. But as I experienced just last week at a parents’ meeting at my child’s school, asking someone, “What keeps them up at night?” might indeed unveil a whole lot of grief, fear and trauma that we are only beginning to uncover — if, and only if, we’re prepared to acknowledge and talk about it.

David Bryfman is the CEO of The Jewish Education Project.