As I arrived at my hotel room in Jerusalem last week as part of an international delegation, I was greeted by a mother, Nechama, caring for seven young and disorientated children, wandering the hotel in pyjamas, her husband serving in the IDF, toys scattered in the corridor, as well as her collection of shoes for sale from the shop she had abandoned.
She was from Shlomi, a northern town from which she had been evacuated indefinitely, together with 250 neighbours. At the end of the week, Rotem, one of my Israeli colleagues, recognised one of the sets of pyjamas and realised that she had in fact washed them in her home, as surrounding communities had been allocated the laundry from the various hotels hosting evacuees.
This seemingly mundane story is but one of the many stories which defined my experience in Israel last week – stories of strength, resilience, sheer determination, alongside love for the Jewish people.
I heard the story of Keren Appelbaum who set up a pop up school for evacuated children in Jerusalem; the story of Rachel Ohana, headteacher in Ofakim, a city which was infiltrated and bore heavy losses, who used her school to co-ordinate the food supplies of the entire city; the legendary story of Rachel, resident of Ofakim, assuaging Hamas by feeding them cake for hours to save herself and many others; the story of Bar Rudaeff whose father remains in captivity, pledging to continue his peace activism; the story of Sarit Zusmann, whose son was killed fighting but who inspired her to look forward and be happy; the story of the young people planning to rebuild the festival site at Be’eri where so many of their friends were massacred; the story of Jews and Arabs volunteering together, building a stronger, more inclusive Israeli society.
In their profound messages and purposeful optimism, I believe we learnt an important lesson. Continuing and strengthening Jewish engagement and connection to Israel depends on the stories we tell. As we were told by Zohar Raviv, director of Birthright, “We cannot sustain the Jewish body on a diet of tragedies”. October 7 was an interruption to our story; it is not the story.
Jewish history is full of ups and downs. To use a phrase coined by at Anu – the Museum of the Jewish People, it is an “oscillating narrative”. When we reach a low point, we know it will be followed by a higher one.
From an education perspective, we have long experience of making these choices. We have learnt that the Holocaust was not a strong basis for a positive Jewish identity. Instead we need an understanding of our proud history, our vibrant present and a belief in our shared destiny.
That shared destiny has today become a major guiding principle. Israelis have come to understand the concept of Jewish peoplehood like never before. We realise that we need each other and that what is happening in Israel and the diaspora are two sides of the same coin.
We are in this together, we are all affected and we are all connected. We can no longer move forward on parallel tracks. We need constant dialogue and partnership.
Our delegation last week was made up of leaders of key education organisations from 12 countries around the world who are shaping the Jewish journeys of hundreds of thousands of young people. We must support each other to build the Jewish future. Fighting antisemitism, while critical, must never become the goal of a solid education.
Time will surely give greater perspective but much is already clear. We are part of an extraordinary people and together we will build a stronger future. To do so, education is the greatest key to our security. But we must choose how we tell our story.
Joanne Greenaway is chief executive of the London School of Jewish Studies