Mending a broken Jewish story

Last week I had the privilege of hosting and participating in a special solidarity mission. The Koret Center for Jewish Civilization, UnitEd, World Zionist Organization and the Pincus Fund for Jewish Education partnered in bringing senior leaders in Jewish education from 22 countries to Israel to understand what the post-Oct. 7 world means for us as educators. 

It only happens a handful of times every century that a single event impacts the inner and outer world of every Jew. In the history of the State of Israel, the number of events such as this have been very few. Yet here we are again — Jews from Israel and around the world together, in this new era that Oct. 7 inaugurated. 

Up until that dark day, we believed that we had transcended the old Jewish story. We believed that we had attained power and safety unprecedented in Jewish history. In its aftermath, we were stunned not only by the cruelty of Hamas, but also by the stinging wave of antisemitism that was unleashed and the weighty questions of identity and status we thought had been put to rest over the past 75 years. The attack was not on the Gaza Envelope communities alone: It was also on our hearts, our place in society and our status amongst other nations; and now we feel alone, vulnerable and exposed. 

To those of us on the solidarity mission, it was clear that now is a moment of global Jewish crisis, and as such our response must be global in nature. How can we, as educators, help mend the broken Jewish narrative for the next generation? How can we ensure that young people are hopeful about the future, and that they possess a sense of self that can withstand external attacks on their identity? 

Here are some initial takeaways from the mission that have come into focus in recent days:

  1. Identity and belonging are the core of our resilience 

The erosion of Jewish belonging has emerged as a source of weakness inside and outside of Israel. 

The Jewish people have survived a long and difficult history; but for most Jewish youth, our story and the tools that it has furnished us with remain inaccessible. They do not see themselves within the broad and ancient Jewish story, and they are not oriented toward learning about it or identifying with it. This is particularly true in Israel. The Israeli identity, rooted in the Zionist narrative, skipped over large segments of the Jewish timeline but has failed to replace them with anything equally compelling. 

Our educational mission is to help young people cultivate a sense of belonging to the Jewish people, because the connection to the bigger story will give them the ability to imagine the “day after”. 

  1. It’s about the people

In the global Jewish community, the State of Israel has been used as a major vehicle for building Jewish identity, both in curricula and programming. But for various reasons — including how the Israeli government has been perceived over the past two decades and the rise in anti-Israel sentiment outside of Israel — there are questions about the effectiveness of using Israel as a tool to build Jewish identity. 

Now we have an opportunity to fit Israel into its rightful place in the larger context of Jewish identity. The Jewish people, our extended mischpacha, are at the center. Our family has a homeland (the Land of Israel) and a house (the sovereign state of Israel), but the focus must be on the people. 

Oct. 7 presents us with an opportunity to put the people, not the state, at the center of our shared work. The people are a real people, with individuals who have the tools to find identity, belonging and resilience within themselves, their homes and their communities.

  1. We need more “insourced” Jewish education 

Educators cannot do it on their own. The most important educators are the parents, and the home is the incubator. Jewish identity is an intergenerational identity. Grandparents and parents are the main storytellers of this narrative. They have the central responsibility to tell their children their stories — where they come from, and how their families deal with challenges, big and small. Educators can only support what parents and grandparents are giving their children within a family setting. 

The more Jewish institutions and leaders are ready to take on shared insights, language and a set of interventions, the greater will be our ability to move our people forward, together and united, towards a shared vision for today and the “day after.” To understand and embrace this notion is to find a way together.

Naama Klar is the director of the Koret International School for Jewish Peoplehood at ANU – Museum of the Jewish People.