A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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Why Jewish education is more important than ever after Oct. 7

Rabbi Jordan Gerson

In the days immediately following Oct. 7, Jewish professionals around the world knew that the landscape of Israel education would change forever. As the full spectrum of the atrocities carried out by Hamas terrorists came to light and the Israeli response and rescue efforts began to take shape, this fact only became clearer. The world, as we knew it, had changed and therefore the way we educated about Israel would also have to evolve as well.

All the more so on college campuses around the United States. But before educators could begin to explore how we would make these changes or what those changes might look like, campus Jewish professionals had to respond to the immediate needs of our students.

Many of us worked with students who were mourning friends and family members lost; with those who worried for their friends and family members who had been kidnapped or who would be called into military service; with those who felt isolated from those they believed were friends and allies on campus; and with those who could only guess what repercussions they might face from peers and professors for making their allegiance and support of Israel known.

The triage Jewish campus professionals undertook in the immediate aftermath of Oct. 7 has been inundating. Some of us are only now coming up for air. We are only just now able to look at the continuously evolving landscape and can begin to make a plan for how to move forward in an intentional way.

What is clear to each of us, however, is that the work of Jewish education and engagement in general and specifically in relation to Israel, has never been more important. It seems as if there are two fronts to this war, one in Gaza being fought with machine guns and munitions – and another on college campuses across the U.S., being fought with slogans and signs.

On campus, we are not fighting for the security of the Jewish nation, rather we are fighting for the security of the Jewish future in America.  Campus professionals have to provide simple and concrete evidence supporting our historical claim to Israel as our ancestral homeland and how to equip our students to have nuanced and informed conversations about the Israel-Palestine conflict.

In late December I was invited by Birthright Israel to be a part of their inaugural Educators Forum. A think tank composed of 20 seasoned Birthright trip staff, mostly from college campuses across North America, and five Israeli tour educators.

We toured the site of the Nova festival and I returned to Kibbutz Kfar Aza, one of the hardest-hit communities, which I had toured only months earlier. The devastation was horrifying and yet it was critical that we bear witness to the atrocities that were committed against these civilians.

We also visited the Civilian Command Center in Jerusalem, which helped to coordinate supplies for civilians displaced by rocket attacks in both the South and the North of Israel and Israel Defense Forces reservists.

We saw a diverse society, banded together and standing in defiance of an enemy bent on its destruction. We witnessed Jewish and Arab Israelis unified against Hamas, working to support and care for the displaced, and saw Jewish and Arab Israelis from the North and South of Israel receiving comfort and supplies from their fellow Israelis in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

We also spent a great deal of time discussing potential changes we believed should be implemented to how we educate about Israel post-Oct. 7 and how we should educate about Oct. 7 during upcoming Birthright trip seasons. For campus professionals, the importance of this moment is crystal clear. There is so much at stake.

Students are feeling an immense sense of social pressure and are weaving through misrepresentations of facts from professors and peers alike. Some feel mistrust towards established Jewish institutions and leaders because the picture that was painted for them during their time at Jewish summer camp and Hebrew school was oversimplified. Campus professionals hear complaints of students’ past Jewish educators portraying Israel as a utopian civilization and ignoring some of the complex social and political issues at play. While this is an appropriate approach for our youngest learners, we have to trust our older students with the ability to engage with Israel in a more nuanced way before they leave for college. We have to give them the tools to discern legitimate criticism of Israeli policies and antisemitism and the confidence, evidence and the sense of urgency to speak out against such bigotry.

In this moment, I urge you to support Jewish educators and organizations on college campuses. Our work has never been more important and your help has never been more needed.

Rabbi Jordan Gerson is the Silk Foundation Campus Rabbi and Chief Experience Officer at Hillel at Washington University in St. Louis. 

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