‘A Great Awakening’ for American Jewry
When Daniel Block traveled from Philadelphia to join the March for Israel in Washington, D.C., on November 14, such activism was still relatively new for him. The 35-year-old, who works in impact investing, had never gone to a pro-Israel event before the brutal Hamas attacks of October 7. Since then, he’d been to two smaller gatherings in Philadelphia and then the one on the National Mall, where he joined an estimated 300,000 people from around the country.
What he described as his “dormant feelings of connection” to the Jewish state had “surfaced” following the terror attacks on Israel’s southern border with Gaza.
Noting that he was raised as a “cultural Jew,” Block has now started wearing a kippah—“off and on,” he clarified. He was wearing one at the rally in Washington along with a T-shirt given to him by an Israeli soldier 15 years ago during a Birthright Israel trip.
“I’m not an activist,” he said, “but I just cannot stand silently any longer as my people are slaughtered and the world celebrates.”
Noe Klein, 31, an English teacher in Cupertino, Calif., a town in Silicon Valley, recalls spending the first two or three days after the Hamas attacks “doing ‘proof of life’ checks on our family in Israel.” Klein’s mother is Israeli.
Despite her family connections, she hadn’t been part of a Jewish community before the terror attacks. “I was feeling isolated and scared,” she said. “I wanted to be with others experiencing what I was feeling, where I didn’t have to explain myself.”
Several weeks into Israel’s war with Hamas, she went to a Happy Hour sponsored by Jewish Young Adults Silicon Valley, her first time at an organized Jewish event. “It was just nice to be with other young Jews and young Israelis,” Klein said. “It felt like a safe space, and spaces have not felt safe recently.”
In the wake of the Hamas attacks and the ensuing war, Jews across the United States have grieved over the loss of life and worried about the fate of the hostages and Israel as well as the alarming increase in antisemitism at home and abroad. At the same time, there has been a palpable sense of unity across most of the American Jewish spectrum, from secular to ultra-Orthodox, in support of Israel. And Jews of all ages have been seeking stronger community connections.
The widespread support for Israel comes after years of angst by mainstream Jewish organizations about an increasing disconnect between Israelis and Jews in the United States, especially among younger unaffiliated Jews and those in the liberal Jewish movements.
But will this closer identification to Israel last when the crisis is over? Or is this a blip, the kind of united front American Jews adopt whenever Israel is threatened and usually abandon once the crisis is past?
Block and Klein both say that for them, the impact of the terror attacks will not fade once the war itself is over. Block has begun donating to Israel-focused charities and wants to reorient his work in global impact investing “to incorporate more proximity to Israel and Judaism.” Klein said she is “honestly considering” moving to Israel, where she has citizenship through her mother.
Rabbis, Jewish organizational officials and observers, however, are reluctant to make predictions regarding the longevity of this outpouring of love and concern for Israel. It’s “too soon to tell” is the response of many.
“I am not a prophet, nor do I think it’s time to talk about any silver lining,” opined Rabbi Elliott Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue, a prominent Conservative congregation in Manhattan.
The immediate impact of the October 7 attacks and resultant war with Hamas was tremendous. There were pro-Israel rallies and vigils, large and small, on college campuses and in towns and cities across the nation. Synagogues reported larger than usual crowds at worship services. Celebrities came out in support of the Jewish state, posted videos on social media and spoke at mass gatherings. Indeed, more than 700 Hollywood stars and studio executives signed an open letter in October condemning the Hamas attack.
Rabbis of all denominations joined solidarity missions to Israel since the war broke out, adding to missions run by federations and other Diaspora organizations, including some aimed at college-age students over their winter break. The Modern Orthodox community, in particular, has been sending groups to visit and volunteer in droves.
At the same time, fundraising for Israel went through the roof, as American Jews dug deeper into their pockets than ever before. By mid-November, Israel Bonds reported raising $1 billion. And in the first four weeks of the conflict, the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) raised more than $600 million through its local communities.
All those donations are “testament to American Jewish love for Israel,” said Neta Katz Epstein, head of the North American delegation of the Jewish Agency, which is funded by JFNA. JFNA released the results of a poll in November that found that 57 percent of American Jews said they “probably will” or “definitely will” give to a cause related to the war.
Wealthy foundations and philanthropists affiliated with the Jewish Funders Network gave an estimated $1 billion in “crisis-related donations,” reported Andres Spokoiny, the group’s president and CEO.
“They are giving significantly more, and whatever they give is above and beyond” their usual philanthropy, Spokoiny said. “A lot of them are refocusing their secular giving to Israeli giving, and that’s important.”
But along with the giving came widespread fear as American Jews worried about friends and family in Israel and prepared for—and experienced—the expected backlash at home. As Israeli forces moved into Gaza, Jews everywhere found themselves being blamed for it.
“October 7 was a great awakening for American Jewry, and not for altogether comfortable reasons,” said Cosgrove. “American Jewry has historically tried to make a distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. What happened on October 7 and the subsequent reactions of the world signaled that, for our enemies, that is not a distinction.”
According to a survey released November 9 by JFNA, more than two-thirds of American Jews—70 percent—felt less safe than they did before the Israel-Hamas war erupted. And that fear is being borne out by statistics.
Antisemitic incidents increased by 316 percent in the first month after the Hamas attacks, according to a November 10 report by the Anti-Defamation League. Between October 7 and November 7, the ADL documented 832 antisemitic incidents of assault, vandalism and harassment, up from 200 incidents reported during the same period in 2022. Of those, 124 took place on college campuses, which, already beset for years by anti-Israel and antisemitic vitriol, exploded with acts against Jewish students.
In an online briefing in November, Adam Lehman, president and CEO of Hillel International, said his organization had documented 412 antisemitic incidents on campuses in the first month of the war, many of which were not reported to ADL. “We have seen individual students targeted,” he said. “We have seen dorm rooms set on fire, swastikas drawn on students’ doors, students accosted on the way to class.”
Zach Weinstein, 23, a senior at San Francisco State University (SFSU) who is active in Hillel, said there has been a big uptick in anti-Israel vandalism and rallies on campus and it has exacerbated an already difficult atmosphere. “There’s been a general unease among Jewish students,” he said, noting that he has seen Jewish students he knows to have been luke-warm toward Israel, even anti-Zionist, before the Hamas attacks “now going around campus posting pro-Israel stuff.”
At the same time, he said, “there’s a lot of pressure right now for students to take a side. A lot of them are afraid to do so, if they’re pro-Israel. They’re afraid of being ostracized.”
Block and Klein are millennials (between ages 27 and 42); Weinstein is Gen Z (between 11 and 26). They are members of generations that have never known existential fear for Israel’s safety, generations that never, or rarely, experienced antisemitism.
“Their grandparents lived through the Shoah and a world without Israel,” explained Marc Dollinger, a historian of American Jewry at SFSU. Some of their parents experienced the Six-Day and the Yom Kippur wars, “where the existence of the State of Israel was threatened. The current generation of students had neither.”
Reports on college-age Jews for decades have shown that they feel less connected to Israel than their elders. One of the most recent, a Pew Research Center survey released in May 2021, revealed that two-thirds of Jews 65 and older say they are “very” or “somewhat” emotionally attached to Israel, compared with 48 percent of those ages 18 to 29.
But the Hamas attack and the ensuing anti-Israel sentiment and Jew hatred that have exploded around the world caught younger Jews unaware, shaking many of them to the core.
“The older generation tried to tell us what evil is, but we didn’t understand,” 32-year-old Shai Weingarten said at the November 5 opening plenary of the Z3 Project conference in Palo Alto, Calif. The event, held annually, examines the Israel-Diaspora relationship and regularly features high-profile political and academic figures from Israel and Jewish communities around the world. This year’s conference was packed, with 1,200 participating in person and more watching online.
Many were there for the first time, including 18-year-old Daniel Mendelson of Walnut Creek, Calif., who attended with his NCSY group, the youth arm of the Orthodox Union. He spent last summer in Israel and said the events of October 7 further strengthened his connection to the Jewish state. “I have friends there now,” he said. “In times like these, I want to contribute as much as possible. It’s the most connected I’ve felt in my entire life.”
Throughout the American Jewish world, rabbis and organizational leaders are reporting the same phenomenon: Jews who had never, or rarely, been involved in Jewish life are showing up—at worship services, at pro-Israel rallies, at Jewish social events and on social media.
“I am seeing that Jews really need to be together right now,” said Rabbi Josh Weinberg, vice president for Israel and Reform Zionism at the Union for Reform Judaism, the umbrella body for some 850 Reform congregations in North America.
“People are looking for language, for people they can relate to,” said Aliza Kline, CEO of OneTable, a national organization that sponsors subsidized Shabbat dinners for the post-college crowd. Her group has seen a “staggering increase” in attendance at their Friday night dinners. The gatherings, which are promoted on OneTable’s digital platform and usually hosted by peers in their own homes, drew 4,352 participants on October 6, the night before the Hamas assault, and more than double that—10,000—on November 17.
Applications to host dinners were also up, she reported, from the usual 70 applications per week to hundreds, at least through November. “People want to do two things,” she said. “Get together with other Jews they don’t have to explain themselves to and actively do something that expresses their Jewish identity.”
Hosts are encouraged to set a topic of conversation before each dinner. Not surprisingly, Israel was reported as the main topic at 42 percent of the dinners in November. Before October 7, just 2 percent of dinners focused on Israel, Kline said.
“Hosts are hearing deep sadness, worry for themselves and the Jewish community, feelings of heightened anxiety,” she related. “People desperately want to talk about it.”
Another place where Jews are talking about Israel is online. “This is a social media war,” said Diana Diner, the Zionist educator at Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America. As part of her job, she monitors social media platforms for anti- and pro-Israel content.
As anti-Israel and antisemitic content has skyrocketed on social media, Diner said, pro-Israel young women are pushing back by sharing more about Israel and Zionism. “I have seen a huge uptick in the number of women, college age and older, saying enough is enough.”
What individuals are experiencing is happening at the congregational level as well. Rabbis are discussing Israel from the bimah, even at synagogues that had stopped or stepped down their Israel talk in past years to avoid painful discussions among congregants with opposing views on Israeli politics and policies.
This is particularly true within the liberal streams of Judaism in America, where identification with Israel is generally less pronounced than among Orthodox Jews.
“I would dare say that every single one of our synagogues has been talking about Israel these past six weeks,” Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the umbrella organization for North America’s more than 560 Conservative shuls, said in mid-November. “Even if it wasn’t top of the agenda before, it certainly is now.”
The war in Gaza has smoothed over pre-existing tensions, at least in the short term. Rabbis and leaders in the Reform and Conservative movements note that recent concerns about the Netanyahu government’s judicial overhaul plans—as well as longstanding concerns about control over Palestinian territories, social equality and religious pluralism in Israel—have been set aside in the name of Jewish unity.
“Our shul has always been staunchly Zionist,” said Rabbi Shira Wallach of Congregation Shearith Israel, a large Conservative synagogue in Dallas that took a congregational trip to Israel last summer. But while the attachment to Israel has not changed, she said, “what has changed is, we have unity.” Whereas congregants’ conversations about Israeli policies could get heated in the past, “now we’ve left those differences on the side. We are all going through this trauma together.”
But once the Israel-Hamas war ends or at least abates, say experts, those social and political concerns shared by many Diaspora Jews will resurface. But will those concerns be aired in quite the same way as they were before?
“It doesn’t mean they’ve gone away,” said Blumenthal, “but it’s hard to know whether we will look at them through a different lens.”
Clergy in the liberal movements find themselves and their congregants having to balance seemingly contradictory perspectives.
“It’s complicated,” said Cantor Regina Lambert-Hayut of Reform Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor, Mich. People are feeling that anti-Israel sentiment is directed at them as American Jews, she said. And they are asking, “How do I feel sympathy for Gazans fleeing their homes and still support Israel trying to protect itself?”
To help congregants navigate their various reactions to the conflict, Beth Emeth organized a series of small-group discussions. “I feel sad and confused,” said Sonya Lewis, 51, one of the participants. “The enormity of the tragedy has forced me to reckon with issues I need to understand better. I’ve struggled with knowing what’s O.K. to think, what’s O.K. to say.”
One lasting impact of this conflict may be a collapse, or at least a softening, of the American Jewish left. Many progressive Jews who marched for Black Lives Matter, supported LGBTQ rights and called for immigration reform have, since the Hamas attacks and the ensuing war, found themselves isolated from former political friends. And they’re not quite sure where they belong.
One of them is 26-year-old Ellie Parker of Atlanta. A host of OneTable dinners and an Orthodox Jew, she describes herself as a longtime leftist, involved with many progressive causes as a law student at Emory University. Before October 7, she said, many of her Jewish friends did not consider themselves Zionist. Now that has changed. “Every conversation I have about Israel now, it’s the most Zionist I’ve ever felt,” she said. “It’s changed everything I think about politics; it’s a time of recalibration for me and my friends.”
Parker said she feels “incredibly” disappointed by those politically on the left. Not only have few progressive organizations publicly supported Israel after the Hamas attacks, many have been vocally anti-Israel. “I’ve felt let down before, but never targeted,” she said.
The sense of betrayal, of feeling isolated from non-Jews they considered allies, has been felt particularly in congregations and Jewish communities that embrace the progressive label.
“Friendships have ruptured over this,” said Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum of The Kavana Cooperative, a nondenominational community in Seattle that is part of the Jewish Emergent Network. Kavana includes a wide range of attitudes toward Israel and Palestine, she said, and as time has passed since the Hamas attack, conversations have begun to shift.
“The traumatized shock and grief at the beginning gave way to a concern about how we hold multiple truths together, how we navigate the particularist-universalist tensions” within Judaism, she said. “There is a desire to be in solidarity with Jews here and in Israel—we can’t not do that—and we also can’t unplug from our humanity regarding the suffering people of Gaza.”
Some community observers suggest that the lasting impact of this crisis will not be simply a stronger identification with Israel among American Jews. Rather, they say, those Jews who already care about Israel will care more, and those who oppose the existence of a Jewish state will become firmer in their stance.
“October 7 concretized existing trends,” said historian Dollinger. “It didn’t change anything, just exacerbated what was already there.”
Israeli Donniel Hartman, the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, which focuses much attention on the Israel-Diaspora relationship, attended the mass rally in Washington and saw hope for the future. It was “exhilarating” and “deeply moving” to see close to 300,000 people show up and say, “We love Israel; we’re standing here with Israel,” he reported on his podcast, For Heaven’s Sake.
Comparing that demonstration of a united people with the fractures that have long plagued the Israel-Diaspora relationship, he said, “This demonstration showed a tremendous amount of love and care.” The questions now, he asked, are: “What prevented it in the past?” and “How do we build on it?”
The task, according to many interviewed, is to find ways to channel the commitment into something more lasting and widespread across generations.
Hadassah’s Diner, who has spent her career in Zionist education, suspects that once the current war subsides, so will the enhanced concern for Israel, especially among younger American Jews.
“I don’t mean to be skeptical, but my generation tends to forget things quickly,” said Diner, who recently turned 40.
That’s why initiatives to engage younger Jews with different backgrounds and perspectives are so important, she said. She cited plans to work with Evolve, Hadassah’s young women’s division, to hold “What Zionism Means to Me” programs in different cities around the country. “We will be discussing a variety of hot-button topics,” she said. “We want to make it very well known that Hadassah is the place to have safe, bold conversations about Zionism.”
While most of those interviewed were reluctant to forecast a permanent change in the American Jewish relationship with Israel, many agreed that something has shifted and that the overall commitment most American Jews have to the Jewish state will prevail.
“With the murder of 1,200 people, the Jewish state and the Jewish people have received a permanent emotional scar,” said Cosgrove, the Manhattan rabbi. “What the vision of Israel will be moving forward, what the relationship of American Jewry to Israel will be, I can only hope, as always, it will be a vision of a secure democratic and Jewish state. That was my hope before October 7 and it is my hope today.”
Sue Fishkoff is the former editor of J. The Jewish News of Northern California and the author of The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch and Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority.
Journalist Gabe Stutman contributed reporting from Washington, D.C.