Young Jews worldwide feel new sense of identity after October 7

Yeshiva University in New York sees a 30 per cent increase in student registration for next autumn


Message of strength: Eliezer Lesovoy, director of education at Yael Foundation, addresses the Cyprus conference. (Photo: Nataliia Jeanvie)

Young Jews around the world have experienced a renewed sense of Jewish identity in the wake of October 7.

That was the key message from a leading Jewish educator at an international conference in Cyprus this week.

For example, Yeshiva University in New York has seen a 30 per cent increase in registration for next autumn.

“In the aftermath of Hamas’s October 7 terror attacks, Jewish youth around the world experienced an awakening that manifested in the form of a revived sense of Jewish identity,” Arie Abitbol, CEO of Ofek Israeli, a subsidiary of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization, told the JC at the International Yael Foundation Conference on Jewish education in Cyprus.

The Yael Foundation, created in 2020 by Jewish philanthropists Uri and Yael Poliavich, currently supports 65 Jewish educational projects and schools impacting some 10,000 children in 31 countries spanning six continents.

Abitbol said that prior to the Hamas massacre there was a disconnect between Jewish youth in the diaspora, especially in Europe, and Israel. “The link had grown weaker,” he said, a gap enhanced by limitations put on travel during the Covid pandemic, which led organisations to cancel Jewish educational trips to Israel.

“We witnessed a similar phenomenon during the [1973] Yom Kippur War, when a lot of Jews felt that Israel was in danger and reconnected to their Jewish identity due to internal and external factors, including the rise of antisemitism,” Abitbol said.

This is translating into a return to Jewish education and a desire to learn Jewish culture. Referring to Yeshiva University’s increase in applications, he said: “These students are leaving other universities because they want to study in a place where they feel secure among their people.”

Israeli ambassador to Cyprus Oren Anolik extolled the virtues and importance of a conference that builds bridges between the Jewish state and its people throughout the globe.

“I attach great importance to the strengthening of Jewish education abroad and I am very much impressed by the work of Yael Foundation,” Anolik told the JC. “While there is great diversity among the Jewish people, some elements of Judaism bring us together, and it’s important to remember them using this tool of Jewish education, especially in these days, when unity is very important.”

Dr Lan Lossos, a neuropsychologist, explained the need to brand Jewish education, and Judaism in general, to attract increasing numbers of the faithful. “Unfortunately, we had October 7 and while we may still be in a traumatic state, we must send a message of strength to enlist Jewish youth,“ she told the JC.

As an example of such messaging, especially in the aftermath of October 7, Lossos invoked the dog tags being worn across the globe to raise awareness of the plight of the hostages being held by Hamas in Gaza.

Other examples of positive branding include focus on Israel as the “Start-up Nation”, the many Jews who continue to win Nobel Prizes, and the country’s unique relationship with the US.

Roi Abecassis, the head of the education department at the World Zionist Organization, called on Jewish educators worldwide to double down on efforts to recruit Jewish youth to rediscover or strengthen their religious heritage.

“Immediately after October 7, we witnessed a reconnection between the state of Israel and the diaspora through solidarity delegations coming to Israel, rallies in support of Israel all over the world and fundraising activities,” Abecassis said during one of the conference panels.

“We have an opportunity to shed light on Jewish history and empower Jewish students and peers with notions of Jewish heroism, brotherhood and volunteering as these things are happening right now in Israel.”

Tamar Krieger, executive director of the Tzemach David Foundation, which provides grants to enrich the Israeli education system, pointed to the need for teachers to build their curriculums around the needs and wants of students.

“There are three components for children to be connected to Jewish life: the spiritual-emotional, the intellectual and the social,” Krieger explained during a panel on the future of Jewish education. “Technology might lead to intellectual connection but not to a spiritual, emotional and social connection.

“So we must build a community for children and parents if we want students to feel connected, and the messaging at home must echo the conversation in school.”

David Goldberg, an educator at a Talmud Torah school in Sao Paulo, Brazil, expressed his appreciation for being able to participate in the conference, which has provided him with tools to implement back home.

“We live in an area where there is no Jewish infrastructure and for some 50 children who learn in non-Jewish schools, our institution is their only portal to Jewish education,” Goldberg told the JC.

“It is very rewarding to see children get acquainted with Jewish culture and the Yael Foundation has been an amazing boost and a tremendous inspiration.”

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