Voices from the field: Educators respond to a historic moment

The unprecedented and horrific events of Oct. 7 in Israel, and its immediate aftermath both inside and outside of Israel, left many of us bereft of words. “Ein Li Milim” — “There are no words” — was all we could say as we struggled to articulate a response or express our feelings. 

Jewish educators, clergy and engagement professionals found themselves particularly challenged. Words are usually their most accessible tools, the resource they call upon to help their learners, congregants and participants make sense of difficult moments; but at this moment, many found themselves struggling.

In order to understand this reality and have the data to direct a response, M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education and the Jewish Education Project, supported by Ezra Kopelowitz and his team at Research Success Technologies, fielded a survey in November 2023 to find out how educators, clergy and engagement professionals were experiencing the moment. 

The survey was administered online between Nov. 13-Dec. 27, 2023, distributed through 12 partner organizations across the globe. A total of 1,456 individuals from 24 countries responded, spanning the range of educational institutions in the Jewish world. Three focus groups with 70 Jewish professionals were conducted in December 2023 to share insights and feedback on the initial findings. (The full report can be downloaded here.)

The survey data, including thousands of written responses, paints a rich and instructive picture of the reality of those who were not only dealing with their personal response to the post-Oct. 7 world but were also charged with leading, nurturing and interpreting for their learners and communities. 

“I think the most difficult thing is that students expect me to have answers. But I feel as lost as they do,” one respondent wrote.

“If I am myself able to process this moment then I would be in a better position to help my learners,” wrote another.

The survey uncovered the isolation and confusion Jewish professionals felt in the wake of Oct. 7. There was across-the-board recognition of the need to respond, coupled with uncertainty about the best course of action. The professionals we heard from were seeking clarity, facts, physical safety and hope, all while grappling with fundamental questions about the unfolding events and their implications.

The survey underscores the inherent difficulties in facilitating educational conversations about traumatic, chaotic and challenging issues, including, but not limited to, those related to Israel and the rise in antisemitism that ensued. These challenges existed prior to Oct. 7 and in the immediate aftermath were in full display. Issues fundamental to living life in contemporary society at this current moment in time were raised. For example, in the age of social media as a primary source of information, there were many variations of the question, What should we believe? Other questions related to the jarring experience of feeling like members of a vulnerable minority, such as Why do they hate us?

The large majority of educators responding to the survey were not highly confident in their ability to respond to the post-Oct. 7 events in Israel and in their communities. One area many focused on is a desire for more training and support to deal with topics related to Israel. Other areas included issues and dilemmas related to living as a Jew in a rapidly changing world, in which there is a sharp increase in antisemitism. Notably, the questions learners are asking about events in Israel are the same types of questions they ask about many other issues: How do I know whose version of events is true? Am I overestimating or underestimating the impact of antisemitism? How do I understand safety? How do I navigate disagreement? 

As such, we understand this call for training as a proxy for many topics in Jewish education. Beyond the discipline of Israel education, educators are seeking ways to develop more knowledge, skills, competence and confidence to support their learners as they grow and grapple, exploring questions, their identity, their community, the Jewish people and their responsibility to all these. These essential and critical struggles are the core project of Jewish education, and professionals seek training to help them respond.

Drawing on the big questions the educators report their learners asking, together with the institutional considerations, existential questions and the value dilemmas they focused on, the study proposes a framework for education focused on navigating the dynamic and changing post-Oct. 7 landscape. This framework includes the necessity to identify one’s professional narrative, followed by the crafting of an appropriate educational strategy. Ideally this process occurs through meaningful conversation with colleagues. 

Our conclusions have ramifications for the training of Jewish educators, who often specialize in specific disciplines or settings but feel ill-equipped to handle complex and broad issues like the rise of antisemitism or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We suggest it is best not to focus on one discipline such as Israel education, but rather to emphasize the need for Jewish professionals to develop their ability to engage substantively with and educate about a wide range of challenging identity-based issues. Our recommendations include: 

1) the need for support in doing identity-based work — emotional, psychological, ideological and more —for both the professionals themselves and their constituents; 

2) the need to cultivate and foster community engagement and dialogue; 

3) the need to create physically safe and secure learning environments – and to contend with the impact of this new element in the lives of many of the professionals and their students; and 

4) the need to develop enhanced curricula and training in critical content areas.

This moment presents an opportunity for Jewish education to evolve, integrating topics like Israel and antisemitism into a broader educational strategy that reflects the complexities of being Jewish in the current era. 

The full report of the “Voices from the Field: Responding to this Historical Moment” survey is available here.

Clare Goldwater is chief strategy officer for M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education. 

Ezra Kopelowitz is principle of Research Success Technologies. 

Rabbi Dena Klein is chief Jewish education officer of The Jewish Education Project.