Community talks it out at post-10/7 healing session

By Carl Zebrowski

“A Conversation about Being Jewish in a Post-October 7 World” was the title of the presentation and discussion in the JCC Kline Auditorium on February 27. Stuart Horowitz and Debbie Zoller of Jewish Family Service guided the gathering sponsored by JFS, the JCC, and the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley. 

Eric Lightman, executive director of the JCC, who toured October 7 massacre sites in Israel in January, kicked off the evening by backing things up a bit. “What’s it like being Jewish all the time?” he asked. What keeps the Jewish people together? What common heritage? What unifying perspectives and sense of purpose?

He began with the Book of Exodus, the story of Moses leading the Jews in their escape from slavery in Egypt. “Historians aren’t sure about the specifics,” he said, but someone wanted to pass down the experiences through time. “It’s the experiences that bind us together.”

In more recent times, there’s the common experience of the Holocaust. Lightman said his ancestors had left Europe earlier in the 20th century, so no one from his family suffered at the hands of the Nazis. 

“Yet I still feel the pain of the lives that were lost,” he said. “It’s become a pain that we all share collectively.”

He pointed out that on the bright side, JCCs like the one in Allentown provide positive collective experiences for the Jewish community. From there, he moved to the inevitable reality of the Hamas attacks and the months between October 7 and now. 

“Israelis are used to wars,” he said, wars fought in their own backyard. They’re used to running to bomb shelters when sirens alert them to incoming missiles—or to attacks like October 7. Sirens are so common that many Israelis ignored them on the 7th.

October 7 changed all that. “This has created a new type of trauma and fear among the Israeli people,” Lightman said. And animosity too. “I could feel the anger under the surface.” There was anger at Hamas, anger at the government for not protecting them, and anger at themselves for being complacent.

“I think Israelis have a real us-versus-them mentality,” he said of their current state of mind, with the caveat that they still felt very grateful for the United States. “I worry about the long-term impacts of the isolated position in which they find themselves.”

Lightman continued that October 7, like the Holocaust and other tragedies, will and should live in memory. “The purpose is to build our collective resilience,” he said. “It was an attack on all Israelis, and I’m telling you it was an attack on all Jews everywhere.”

With that, the large assembly was divided into small groups in which the individuals could discuss their reactions to October 7 and feelings they’ve experienced since then. A facilitator in each group asked participants to answer prepared questions. When the allotted 45 minutes for this portion of the night concluded, the facilitators reported their findings to the full audience. 

“How is everyone feeling?” asked Zoller. Jeri Zimmerman, executive director of the Jewish Federation, said it was constructive to talk to people in groups about what happened and what’s continuing to happen. “It’s a nice break from the intensity of what we’ve been experiencing,” she said

Reports from the groups uniformly included sustained feelings of anger. And fear. Some participants were afraid to park outside the JCC. Some refrained from putting a menorah on their windowsill. Someone gave a fake name to an Uber driver. 

There were concerns about what kind of world adults were leaving for their kids. College campuses, with their populations in the transition stage between youth and adult, have been hotspots of antisemitism and anti-Israel protests. What’s next?

Everyone worried about Israel, worried that the war could escalate and spread. They worried about the impact that everything that has happened could have on future generations of Israelis. One person wondered, “Why don’t Hamas and others see that Jews are trying to make the world a better place, tikkun olam?”

Zoller offered the final words of the night. “What can I say to wrap up that would be more profound than what you all said?” she concluded. “I hope you walk away thinking, I just spent an hour talking with people in my community who understand what I’m feeling. I think there’s some relief in that.”