The Silver Lining: How October 7 Sparked A Religious Revival

Four months after October 7, a kiruv organization held one of their ski retreats in Montana. Within record time, hundreds of secular Jewish college students applied for the 50 available slots.

One of the unlikely side effects of the brutal Hamas atrocities in Israel is the spiritual renaissance it has sparked among secular Israelis. In a welcome parallel, the explosion of antisemitism outside Israel has kindled a religious resurgence among secular Jews in the Diaspora.

The surge of Jew-hatred around the world seems to have had a boomerang effect. Though there are those Jews who have taken to hiding identifying Jewish markers, many secular and unaffiliated Jews are abruptly and unexpectedly coming face-to-face with their Jewish identity. And they are embracing it.

While some Orthodox Jews have taken to donning baseball caps, many secular Jews are putting on a yarmulke for the first time in their lives. They are proudly wearing Magen David necklaces. Bring Them Home hostage dog tags are all the rage.

The worse the antisemitism, the greater the pride in their Jewish heritage. Many secular Jews who before October 7 were Jews in name only are now going to synagogue, putting on tefillin, shopping in kosher supermarkets and enrolling in Jewish schools. They are not shy about it either. Many are posting examples of their newly found observance on social media, despite risking further alienation from their peers, coworkers and fellow students.

The pintele Yid is being catapulted to new heights. Suddenly, esoteric questions about Jewish heritage are no longer theoretical. If a Jew is hated for his birthright, what exactly is that birthright? If he is singled out and shunned for his identity, what is that identity? What does it mean to be a Jew?

I spoke to several of these Jews about this new phenomenon and how it has impacted their lives. In conversations with them, and with those involved in bringing Jews closer to their Judaism, the illuminating tale of their spiritual awakening proves that in every bad there is good.

Shlomo Silverman

Shlomo volunteers with Heritage Retreats as a mentor for Jewish college students. Several months ago, he participated in that spectacularly overbooked ski retreat held in Montana. To him, it was obvious that the participants were eager to learn about their Judaism because they are currently being singled out as Jews. “They want to know why they’re being singled out and what their Jewish heritage and identity really mean,” he says.

Most of the participants Shlomo interacted with had minimal association with Judaism. “They don’t keep Shabbos. They don’t even know what Sukkos or Pesach is. But it didn’t make a difference to the antisemites on campus. If your name is Jewish or if you’re part of a Jewish frat on campus, then you’re singled out and feel threatened. The protests are against the Jews. I think that’s where this need for exploration is stemming from. They want to know what it is that makes them different from everyone else. They’re looking for more clarity about who they are, what their purpose is and who their people are.”

Although the massacre in Israel was not explicitly referenced during the retreat, it seemed to stake out a subconscious presence. It was clearly a factor that drove the students to search for answers.

“October 7 was obviously what propelled a lot of the kids to come,” Shlomo explains. “They felt a little lost on college campuses and wanted a safe place to come to. They started going to more of the Jewish learning centers that do kiruv on campus. They’re attending more Jewish get-togethers because they want a sense of community. They thought they had that with other students on campus and found out that they weren’t really a part of them.”

Shlomo points out that many of the students no longer feel comfortable and safe in their environments, whereas a year ago they did. While antisemitism always existed, for the most part, no one experienced it firsthand until now.

“All of a sudden, they are experiencing some form of antisemitism,” he says. “They all have the same feeling of ‘Wow, I’m a part of this, even though I might not look like it, because I was born into it.’ They want to connect to their heritage. They want to learn more about what their Jewish identity means, whether it’s becoming more religious or just being a proud Jew on campus. They’re proud of being a Jewish person in 2024.”

Aaron Ratner

Aaron is the owner of several restaurants in New York City, which he opened after graduating culinary school a few years ago. He grew up in Great Neck, Long Island, went to public school and attended Hebrew school twice a week. His religious observance included “having a bar mitzvah, doing Shabbat once in a while, going to a Conservative synagogue for the High Holidays and having a Pesach Seder.”

October 7 changed all that. Aaron says that that day “really flipped my world upside down.” A personal connection to the horrific massacre led him to take a deep dive into his Jewish heritage. His cousin in Israel was at the Nova music festival and barely escaped machine-gun fire by fleeing in a random car through the desert.

According to Aaron, that was when everything stopped for him, including work, for several weeks. “Here in the U.S., we kind of felt useless, and our focus was on Israel. We wanted to do as much as we could to help out. It was a personal thing, and it definitely drew me a lot closer to my Jewish roots… It prompted me to start to practice Judaism. I started putting on tefillin every day. Recently I got involved in Olami, but once October 7 happened, everybody really took that next step to the next level. We wanted to be around other Jews and do what we can.

That desire to connect with other Jews stemmed from a feeling of safety and pride. “I think it definitely felt safer to be around other Jews. It was also a pride thing. We were all in the same position. For once, no matter what kind of Jew you are — Reform, Conservative or Orthodox — everybody was connecting at the same level. After October 7, I attended an Olami learning event, and it was standing room only. People I thought would never want to learn were coming. There were so many people that you couldn’t even get into the door.”

Aaron was drawn specifically to the sense of community. “I wanted to be around people who have the same thoughts, the same mission and goal in life. There’s something warming about being around other Jews during such a difficult time. There’s something comforting in seeing all the bad things, but we’re seeing them together — also seeing all the good things together coming from this. It’s a different feeling than being on your own.”

Aaron highlights the divisiveness in Israel before October 7 and the unity that followed. He volunteers as a firefighter in Great Neck and also went to volunteer in Israel for a few weeks at the end of October. He was astounded at how politics fell by the wayside, and everyone “came together.”

All this has inspired him to undertake more religious observance. “It’s about Jewish values. I’ve been doing Shabbat every week since. It’s not something I’ve ever done before. Now a large group of friends get together on Friday and do Shabbat together. I’ve started to think more about actually keeping Shabbat and try to keep my phone off on Shabbat. Small steps. I feel like I have something to look forward to every week. It can be Sunday, and we’re already talking about what we’re going to do for Shabbat. People ask me what Shabbat is. When I tell my non-Jewish friends that we have this huge dinner Friday night for our family and friends, and we sing and we dance, they really envy me. Then you know it’s special. We’re all about community and family, and not everybody has that.”

The antisemitic milieu has impacted his desire for more connection to his roots. “There are so few of us Jews, but we’re special, and I really wanted to know why — why we always continue to get killed, and yet we always come back stronger every single time.”

Annabel Anisfeld

Originally from London, Annabel has lived for five years in New York City, where she studied drama and creative writing at NYU. She grew up in a traditional Jewish home in North London, largely shaped by the experience of her paternal grandfather, who was a Holocaust survivor. Though both of her maternal grandparents were Jewish, Annabel says, “My mother didn’t know she was Jewish until she was 18. It was by chance that she married a Jew.”

Annabel attended non-Jewish schools growing up, and the majority of her close friends have not been Jewish. However, she believes that her traditional upbringing spared her the rude awakening that shook many of her Jewish peers after October 7.

“Because of my traditional background and my belief in G-d, I didn’t necessarily have the jolting experience that I’ve seen in a lot of cultural Jews since October 7,” she shares. “They suddenly woke up and realized that some of their friends aren’t their friends. And they have this sudden urge to be in this safe space, just around Jews…. ”

It is impossible to ignore the role of politics in the emergence of today’s antisemitism, with each seeping into the other. Annabel considers herself to be a centrist, although she acknowledges how that depends on the context a person is in. “In the context of NYU, you could call some of my opinions pretty Trumpian, but I don’t think they actually are.”

As such, it was easier for her to recognize the blatant antisemitism of the left for what it was. “People I am in touch with personally scoffed at the idea of antisemitism coming from the left. They said, ‘What on earth is this? Antisemitism comes from the right, and everyone on the left is all accepting and peace-loving and rainbows.’ I think October 7 woke them up to the fact that it really exists on the left as well, if not more. Cultural and left-leaning Jews felt horribly jolted and betrayed by the hypocrisy of the left…. ”

I ask Annabel if this sense of betrayal is moving those Jews toward the right or toward discovering what their Jewish heritage means. “I feel that these people are struggling with it. I think some people might have too bad a taste in their mouth to ever call themselves right-leaning, because of where we are in the world. Really, it’s a matter of pursuing the truth. It’s a matter of knowing who we are as Jews and what it means to be a Jew.”

To that end, Annabel has tried to devote more energy to Jewish prayer and ritual observance. “I found a website called ‘Just One Thing,’ where you take on a mitzvah in merit of a soldier. I took on the blessing of Asher Yatzar for a few weeks.”

She traveled to volunteer in Israel, where she went to bear witness at the site of the atrocities, prepared meals for IDF soldiers and donated toys to children whose families have been displaced. She also went on a trip to Poland with Olami to explore Jewish history. “People came on the trip because they want to know who they are, where they come from. Also, it was a safe space to express sadness, pain, and love of your identity [together] with fellow Jews. I think it’s more important than ever to understand what it means to be a Jew.”

Yoni Katz

Yoni is a fourth-year dental student at Columbia University Dental School. Three years ago, he created JCAC, Jewish Community at Columbia, a grassroots organization intended to promote Jewish identity. He saw it as filling a void on campus. The organization has seen a huge uptick in students attending events post-October 7.

“The numbers before and after October 7 are dramatically different,” Yoni says. “They keep going up. The students feel much more connected and are looking for a safe space for people like them. Our group chat post-October 7 has also been much more active. People talk about protests on their campus and question why it’s acceptable. They are essentially holding each other’s hands.”

In addition to an emphasis on Jewish identity, Yoni has noticed a much deeper interest in religious participation. “At recent events, everyone wanted to make a brachah over their drinks for the hostages and their health. There’s more of an interest in spending Shabbos meals with frum families. And we don’t say, ‘Have a great weekend,’ anymore; we say, ‘Have a great Shabbos.’”

Antisemitism has played a lead role in this development. Jewish students are surprised by classmates who were formerly friendly but have now stopped talking to them or are posting negative things about Jews on their social media. “They’re seeing who their real friends are,” says Yoni.

The current antisemitism seems to have its own distinction. During the 2021 hostilities between Israel and Hamas, Yoni noticed that students were too intimidated to tell others that they were Jewish for fear of being known as the bad guys. “Now, however, the students are standing up for themselves and their heritage. I think the antisemitism today is leading people to become more connected to their Judaism. Anyone who’s Jewish is eager to come to our events and show support and see like-minded people. They feel proud of their identity. Jew-hatred is forcing students to take a stand. Are you Jewish or are you not?”

Jonathan Nurieli

Jonathan works in tech sales in New York since graduating three years ago. He grew up in a mixed Israeli-Sephardic and Ashkenazic home in Hollywood, FL. His family was affiliated with an Orthodox congregation, but Jonathan explains that they are traditional, not observant. “I would do Shabbat dinners but I wouldn’t keep Shabbos,” he says. “I would go to shul on the High Holidays and occasionally for services here and there.”

Nothing has been the same since October 7. “Now I find myself wanting to incorporate a lot more Jewish customs and laws in my life on a more regular basis. October 7 was the catalyst. Because I grew up in a traditional home, I used to feel torn over our level of observance. We were affiliated with an Orthodox shul but we were not keeping things the right way. I always felt like we were picking and choosing. That was something I struggled with. But after Oct 7 I started picking more things up. I’ve started saying Tehillim at least once a day. I’ve started adding the Amidah when I pray rather than just saying Shema. I feel it’s my way of contributing in a spiritual sense.”

Jonathan sees himself becoming more observant as he grows older. “There’s a very big possibility I will keep Shabbat and a kosher home at the very least. I want to continue incorporating things, because it adds so much value to my life.”

When I ask Jonathan if antisemitism played a role in moving him closer to observance, his answer was unequivocal. “One hundred percent. Because of the climate right now, I felt that I had to cling to my Jewish identity. In terms of being more involved with my community, I’ve been going to a lot more Jewish events and [have become] involved in Jewish organizations. I went on a heritage trip to Poland. But also in a spiritual way, the more that I embrace Judaism in my life, the more I feel Jewish and connected. I think that if everybody does that, it’s a way that we all grow closer together.”

While antisemitism has driven some Jews to hide their Jewish identity, it has had the opposite effect on Jonathan. “I’ve never been that type of Jew that cowers before the mob. I’ve always been exceptionally proud of who I am. It’s the biggest part of my identity. The climate of antisemitism has only emboldened me. It’s made me feel prouder to be a Jew than ever.”

Jonathan sees a similar reaction among his peers post-October 7. “It was a massive wake-up for everybody, an awakening inside. They feel the need to cling to their Jewish identity.”

Part of that awakening involved the shocking extent to which Jonathan sees that the political left is hostile to Israel and Jews. “After October 7, it was extremely shocking to see people outright deny, gaslight, and, worse, celebrate the very clear atrocities and the most grotesque actions by Hamas.”

Jonathan explains that if there’s a silver lining in all of this, it’s the unity that has sprung up within Israel and the Jewish people. “On October 6, we had never been more divided… and after October 7, we’ve never been more unified. One thing that does scare me a little is that we are starting to see some divisiveness start to rare it’s ugly head again. I hope that the Jewish people cling on to the unity that we saw in the immediate aftermath of Oct 7 and remember who we are. We must never allow such an atrocity to happen again for us to realize what our identity is.”