‘I Was Very Alone Today’: Young Jewish Americans Grieve Over Israel

They woke up last Saturday morning and picked up their phones, the daily ritual of reconnecting with the world. The horror came flooding in, through direct messages, Instagram posts, terrifying video clips and scattered news reports. “Good morning,” read an overnight text from a friend in Israel. “I just woke up to a war with Hamas.”

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

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

“It 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 New York City public high school. “I think Jews feel it’s 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 20s, described their experiences in the week since Hamas launched an attack into Israel, killing more than 1,000 people, including an estimated 260 at a music festival.

They spoke of fear and shock, solidarity and helplessness, a newfound bond with some friends and an estrangement from others. Like many young people, they are still sorting out how they see the world, and what might have felt certain a week ago — about friends, values and identity — has been upended by the events in Israel and Gaza.

Sarah Wapner, 27, a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, compared the attack to pogroms and genocide in Europe in the last century.Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

A 19-year-old in Washington said he has been responding to texts from his former campers asking if he knew whether fellow counselors of his from Israel, who spent the summer at their Jewish overnight camp in Wisconsin, were still alive. A high school senior on Long Island said she had grown nervous about explaining the Hebrew letters on her necklace to people who asked about it at the smoothie place where she works. A college senior in Philadelphia said he was reluctant now to express his criticism of the Israeli government’s policies toward Palestinians, having seen that people who said similar things were being doxxed or accused of supporting Hamas.

Nearly all of the people interviewed talked about a kind of aloneness, a sense that a chasm had appeared between their network of Jewish friends and family and the non-Jewish world around them. While young Jewish people have started fund-raisers 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 New Jersey high school. There has been nothing like that now. What was going on in Israel was apparently considered “controversial,” he said, 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 with his local chapter of BBYO, a Jewish youth movement. “For me right now as it stands, I’m never forgetting this first weekend in October.”

Affinity and support for Israel predominates in the Jewish American population of approximately 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 conducted in 2020. Young adults were less likely to claim a “somewhat strong” or “very strong” emotional attachment to the Jewish state, though most said this attachment was an important part of being Jewish.

The Birthright Israel organization has been an engine of this attachment for more than two decades, taking 850,000 young Jews from around the world on free guided tours around Israel. Gidi Mark, the chief executive, said in a telephone interview from his in-home shelter in Tel Aviv that the organization has received over 60,000 notes and photos from alumni since last Saturday’s attacks.

Sam Klein, 20, does not see things improving in the days to come, in Gaza or here in America. “I’m not optimistic, I think it’s going to get worse,” he said. Credit…Sean Pressley for The New York Times

Some ways of connecting suddenly appeared to be broken. Social media, where young people instinctively gather at generation-defining moments like this, seemed to become more toxic than ever in the days after the attack, many said.

“Social media does not know how to handle this issue at all,” said Cora Galpern, 22, a graduate student at the University of Michigan.

While she has had meaningful face-to-face conversations about the crisis, Instagram has seemed like a minefield, Ms. Galpern said. Fellow alumni of Jewish youth groups post content “that looks like hype videos from I.D.F. soldiers, treating the war as some sort of sports game,” while some peers in left-wing circles, generally concerned with Palestinian solidarity, try to reframe or even justify violence.

Mac Lang, 23, was still awake in Columbus, Ohio, last Saturday when push 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 long advocated for the rights of Palestinians. But in recent days, he has felt estranged from onetime allies, some of whom have gone beyond criticizing Israel’s government in social media posts and downplayed or defended Hamas — a group that, he noted, does not merely resist Israel but rather “is very explicitly anti-Jewish.”

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

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

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 “Stand With Israel” videos, he sees no substantive discussion about the sources of the conflict. In the Israeli press, there is an open debate about the government’s policies toward Palestinians and whether they have led to horrific consequences, but that debate is not happening in the U.S., he said.

Mr. Klein’s family roots run generations deep in the Jewish neighborhoods of Cleveland, but at a time like this, he recognizes that he is, politically speaking, an outlier even within the Jewish community. He does not see things improving in the days to come, in Gaza or here in America.

“I’m not optimistic, I think it’s going to get worse,” he said. “I think it’s going to get more racist. I think it’s going to get more anti-Palestinian, I think it’s going to get more antisemitic.”

A sense of dread was shared broadly, even by those who would find very little agreement with Mr. Klein.

Sarah Wapner, 27, a 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; Ms. Wapner, who grew up Modern Orthodox, spent that morning at services, observing the Sabbath prohibition on using phones and other devices.

But since then, Ms. Wapner has experienced “a state of horror, numbness, grief, fear, that is quickly giving way to rage.”

Some of this rage was directed at organizations, including some Jewish ones, that have been marching in support of Palestine — Ms. Wapner called these groups “poisonous.” Generally, she said, the streets of New York, where she lives, feel unsafe for Jews as of late.

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

Ms. Mahalel, the New York City high schooler, has been reflecting on Jewish history. Her great-grandmother escaped Germany for Israel, where her father was from and where she was born before coming to the United States as an infant.

“Experiencing war and atrocity and murder is very much embedded in Jewish history and Israeli history,” she said.

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

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