'Religion of Hope and Joy'

Perseverance and resilience after October 7

As our students came in before school to claim a coveted top locker, many approached me to ask if the "kenes tefillah" would continue this year.

Just days after the October 7 attacks, thousands of people rallied and showed their support for Israel. Photo: Cameron Clegg
Just days after the October 7 attacks, thousands of people rallied and showed their support for Israel. Photo: Cameron Clegg

One of the challenges in leading a school, or indeed in raising young people, is nurturing the traits of perseverance and resilience. These traits are invaluable as our children navigate their way through adolescence and young adulthood. In times of crisis, these traits are relied on even more.

We returned to school for term 4 last year, post October 7, in a state of shock and bewilderment. Aside from awareness and fundraising, we instituted a daily “kenes tefillah” – a gathering of all high school students after morning prayers to pray together and pray specifically and intentionally for the welfare and safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel. It was 20-25 minutes of each day dedicated to tefillah through psalms and song. As the assembly hall morphed into the end of year exam venue, we stayed true to the course with students standing around the exam desks to continue this daily ritual which had become embedded in our schedule.

Returning to school this year, with a long war ahead, we knew that the imperative to pray for the safety of the chayalim was not going to abate quickly. As a leadership team we worried if the engagement and stamina displayed by the students in term 4 of last year would not be as palpable, or even present at all. Would our students have the perseverance to continue to prioritise these reflections and would they have the resilience to continue to pray for our brothers and sisters in Israel? As we approach the end of the first week of the school year, there are three things that ring truer than ever.

The first is that our students have both the ability and the desire to connect deeply with Israel. As our students came in before school to claim a coveted top locker, many approached me to ask if the “kenes tefillah” would continue this year.

The time of togetherness both grounded and connected them to Israel and to each other. With many of our students personally affected with siblings in the IDF, starting the day by saying tehillim and the prayer for our soldiers made them feel that they had done something, just a small something, to help keep them safe. It was a time of choral imploration where psalms, prayers and songs are said all together, not just by a cantor or prayer leader. Their tehillim literacy went through the roof and now all of them can sing the prayer for the IDF. Our students want to connect, daily. It is important that we give them this opportunity.

Secondly, teenagers don’t only respond to emotional tugs on their heart strings. They are more resilient and capable than that. Our students answer the call to responsibility. And what starts with emotion can be sustained by instilling a sense of responsibility.

I was wrong to doubt their ability to persevere and maintain a routine that included extra demands on their time. Teenagers are not innately selfish. At their core they desire to do good, to give, to contribute meaningfully. I suspect that these traits are magnified when teenagers feel an acute sense of belonging, as our students do. We need to engender these feelings of responsibility and know that even as passion and emotions wax and wane, the duty to our people and our state will endure.

Finally, while we do not need to shield our children from the tsunami of antisemitism, we cannot allow it to define their Judaism. While we educate them about how to navigate the vitriol on social media, this cannot be the focus of their Jewish education and Jewish identity. We rather must focus on the beauty of Jewish practice, Jewish peoplehood and the Jewish state.

Having conducted exit interviews with VCE students over the past eight years, I know from listening to our young people that it is their Jewish experiences that stand out as highlights of their education journey. Shabbatonim, camps, Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations, intensive Jewish learning days, these are the most memorable and most defining events that shaped their Jewish identity. And in times of crisis or sorrow, singing Jewish songs together can transform that sadness into feelings of unity and purpose. Ours is a religion of hope and of joy.

As Jewish educators we are in the business of Jewish continuity. Our students are more likely to continue Jewish practice and Jewish connection if their Jewish school experience embeds routines of communal prayer and song, instils the value of responsibility and a focus on the good that comes from being a knowledgeable, passionate and active participant and contributor to the Jewish story. Their Jewish story. This is the story that will persevere.

Shula Lazar is the principal of Leibler Yavneh College.

read more: