‘I was very lonely today’: Young American Jews mourn Israel

They woke up last Saturday morning and picked up their phones, a daily ritual of reconnecting with the world. Horror flooded direct messages, Instagram posts, terrifying videos and scattered news stories. “Good morning,” was a text from a friend from Israel overnight. “I just woke up to a war with Hamas.”

Being young in America now means receiving the news unfiltered. For many young American Jews, this meant first learning in the quiet isolation of their bedrooms about what President Biden called “the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.”

For some, that sense of isolation would not go away in the days ahead. Teachers said little or nothing about it, close friends didn’t seem particularly interested, and on social media some people defended the attack as a justified response to Israel’s policy toward Gaza, Palestinian statelessness or the presence of a Jewish state.

“I felt like I was very alone today,” said Ahuva Mahalel, a 16-year-old who said she has many Jewish friends and neighbors but doesn’t know any other Jews at her public high school in New York. “I think Jews find it very personal. No one understands it and no one can experience the nuance of it.”

In more than a dozen interviews, young Jewish Americans, many in their teens or twenties, described their experiences in the week since Hamas launched its assault on Israel, killing more than 1,000 people, including about 260 at the music festival.

They spoke of fear and shock, solidarity and helplessness, newfound connection with some friends and estrangement from others. Like many young people, they are still coming to terms with how they see the world, and what might have been certain a week ago – about friends, values ​​and identity – has been shattered by events in Israel and Gaza.

One 19-year-old from Washington said he was responding to messages from his former campers asking if he knew if his fellow counselors from Israel, who spent the summer at their Jewish overnight camp in Wisconsin, were still alive. One Long Island high school senior said she became nervous about explaining the Hebrew letters on her necklace to people who asked about it at the restaurant where she worked. One graduate student in Philadelphia said he is now reluctant to voice his criticism of the Israeli government’s policies toward the Palestinians, since he has seen people who have said similar things convicted or accused of supporting Hamas.

Almost all of the people interviewed spoke of some kind of loneliness, a feeling that a chasm had appeared between their network of Jewish friends and family and the non-Jewish world around them. While young Jews started fundraising or joined letter-writing drives, they saw no comparable urgency among their peers.

Ethan Smith, 17, said that after Russia invaded Ukraine last year, pro-Ukraine clubs immediately formed at his high school in New Jersey. There was nothing like that now. What was happening in Israel was apparently considered “controversial,” he said, even though it seemed very clear to him.

“Every generation has that one thing that you can always remember exactly where you were,” said Mr. Smith, who is heavily involved in his local chapter of BBYO, the Jewish youth movement. “For me at this point, I’ll never forget this first weekend in October.”

Affinity and support for Israel is prevalent among the Jewish American population of roughly 7.5 million, or between 2 percent and 3 percent of the U.S. population, often transcending denominations and even party affiliation, according to a Pew Research Center survey implemented in 2020. Younger adults were less likely to claim a “somewhat strong” or “very strong” emotional attachment to the Jewish state, although most said that attachment was an important part of being Jewish.

Birthright Israel has been a driving force behind this commitment for more than two decades, taking 850,000 young Jews from around the world on free guided tours of Israel. Gidi Mark, the executive director, said in a telephone interview from his home in Tel Aviv that the organization has received more than 60,000 notes and photos from former students since last Saturday’s attack.

Some connection methods suddenly broke. Many said social media, where young people instinctively flock to during generation-defining moments, has become more toxic than ever in the days since the attacks.

“Social media doesn’t know how to deal with this at all,” said Cora Galpern, 22, a student at the University of Michigan.

Although she had meaningful face-to-face conversations about the crisis, Instagram felt like a minefield, Ms. Galpern said. Fellow alumni from Jewish youth groups post content “that looks like hype videos of IDF soldiers, treating war as some kind of sports game,” while some peers from leftist circles, generally concerned about Palestinian solidarity, try to reframe or even justify the violence.

Mac Lang, 23, was still awake in Columbus, Ohio, last Saturday when call alerts from Israeli news outlets — a legacy of his time studying abroad in Jerusalem — began pinging his phone.

A veteran of Jewish summer camps and now a graduate student at Ohio State University, Mr. Lang has long advocated for Palestinian rights. But in recent days he has felt estranged from former allies, some of whom have gone beyond criticizing the Israeli government in social media posts and downplayed or defended Hamas — a group he noted not only opposes Israel but is “very explicitly anti-Jewish.” .”

“As someone who identifies as very left-wing, this is the first time I’ve felt uncomfortable in left-wing spaces,” Mr. Lang said.

“I feel very lost about things. More than I ever had.”

A student on the same campus, Sam Klein, 20, also described feeling out of place. In the “Instagram activism” of his peers, the posting of Israeli flags and the “Stand With Israel” video, he sees no substantive discussion about the sources of the conflict. There is an open debate in the Israeli press about the government’s policies toward the Palestinians and whether they have led to horrific consequences, but that debate is not taking place in the US, he said.

Mr. Klein’s family roots go back generations deep in Cleveland’s Jewish neighborhoods, but at a time like this, he recognizes that, politically speaking, he is an outsider even within the Jewish community. He doesn’t see things getting better in the days to come, in Gaza or here in America.

“I’m not optimistic, I think it will get worse,” he said. “I think it will become even more racist. I think it will become more anti-Palestinian, I think it will become anti-Semitic.”

The sense of horror was widely shared, even by those who would disagree with Mr. Klein very little.

Sarah Wapner, 27, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, compared the attack to pogroms and genocide in Europe in the last century. Unlike many others her age, she didn’t get the news on her phone; Mrs. Wapner, who grew up Modern Orthodox, spent that morning at services, observing the Sabbath ban on the use of phones and other devices.

But since then, Ms. Wapner has experienced “a state of terror, numbness, sadness, fear, which quickly turns to anger.”

Some of this anger was directed at organizations, including some Jewish ones, that march in support of Palestine – Ms. Wapner called the groups “toxic.” In general, she said, the streets of New York, where she lives, have not been safe for Jews lately.

“Jews have a new responsibility to arm themselves,” she added.

Ms. Mahalel, a high school student from New York, was thinking about Jewish history. Her great-grandmother fled from Germany to Israel, where her father is from and where she was born, before coming to the United States as a child.

“The experience of war, crime and murder is very much ingrained in Jewish and Israeli history,” she said.

But she and her peers, born in the 21st century, have never experienced horrors on such a scale. “People don’t know how to react.”

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