How Students Are Responding to Antisemitism

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images


In the wake of rising antisemitism on college campuses and in public high schools, a growing number of students are responding to antisemitism in a novel way—by embracing their Judaism. 

In the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attack on Israel, Laura Barkel was yelled at, spat on and physically assaulted by pro-Palestinian demonstrators. Her reports to officials at Toronto Metropolitan University, where she is a student, fell on deaf ears. 

Laura is not alone. A resurgence of hatred against Jews has grown quickly and virulently on college campuses and in public high schools throughout North America. Call it a rude awakening for Jewish Gen Zers who had rarely encountered such blatant prejudice in the past. Despite exposure to tragedies like the synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway, and instances of unabashed antisemitism such as Kanye West’s Adidas controversy, the abrupt and powerful rise of antisemitism on campus and in schools in the aftermath of the Hamas attack has left many young people facing a stark and unsettling reality. 

Students are now forced to become adept at maneuvering their way through the kind of hostility and tension that adults have difficulty navigating. And in this fine balance has come an awakening of a different kind: a tighter embrace by these young people of their Jewish identities and a crystallization of their core Jewish values.

“I feel like the Jewish community is my whole life now,” says twenty-one-year-old Laura, who was raised in a secular Israeli family in the largely Jewish suburb of Thornhill, Ontario. “I’ve worked with the local Chabad to involve my friends, who are feeling like they need more of a connection to the Jewish community, with shuls in their areas. And along with the rebbetzin at my synagogue, I set up a weekly challah bake for women. In addition to having fresh, delicious challah each week, it’s become a really valued tradition for all of us.” 

Laura became more involved in Judaism when she discovered NCSY while attending public high school. She took on more mitzvot over time but admits that her observance slackened once she moved away from home for her first fully in-person semester at university this fall. “I was living on my own for the first time, and I think I lost that connection amid the hustle and bustle of being in university,” Laura explains. 

Then October 7 happened, and the unexpected wave of antisemitism reawakened her sense of Jewish identity. “I’m returning to the roots I found in high school that I had lost,” says Laura, “and while it’s unfortunate that such [a catastrophic event] brought me back, I’m grateful [to be reconnecting].”

Doubling Down on Jewish Identity

Rabbi Shlomo Mandel, NCSY Canada’s COO and regional director, says Laura’s experience of drawing closer to her Judaism is indicative of a wider trend he is seeing among JSU participants.  

Jewish Student Union (JSU), a project of NCSY, is a network of after-school Jewish culture clubs in public schools and non-Jewish private schools throughout North America. The clubs aim to teach teens about their Jewish heritage and help them meet other Jewish teens. “This is definitely a theme I’ve heard from JSU staff and from students I’ve spoken with,” says Rabbi Mandel. 

Since October 7, both the OU’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (OU-JLIC), which helps Jewish students navigate secular college campuses, and JSU have reported a groundswell of interest in Judaism among the populations they serve, with rising numbers of Jewish students seeking a stronger sense of community and deeper connection to their heritage.

“Since that first day back at York University after Thanksgiving break, which is in October in Canada, we’ve gotten a minyan for Minchah every single day I’ve been on campus,” says Rabbi Aaron Greenberg, the OU-JLIC Torah educator who is based at York University but is responsible for three college campuses across Toronto. “Before that, we had a minyan maybe twice.

October 7 pushed teens to think: who am I? And many of them made a choice—they are choosing Judaism.

“In addition, a couple of our students who run track and field at York started davka [intentionally] wearing their Magen David necklaces visibly out,” he adds. “We recently made tzitzit for chayalim, and I couldn’t believe it but a third of the students [attending the program] were not even shomer Shabbat. Dozens of Jewish students I’ve never seen before are reaching out for a Jewish class or just to talk to a rabbi for chizuk.”

Rabbi Elie Buechler, the OU-JLIC rabbi at Columbia University, one of the Ivy League colleges that came under fire for its administration’s poor response to skyrocketing antisemitism, sees a similar phenomenon on his campus. “Students who were less engaged Jewishly have gravitated toward being proud of being Jewish,” he says.

“They’ve told me, ‘I make an effort now to wear a kippah or a Magen David necklace.’ The Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life, Hillel’s building, which OU-JLIC shares at our campus, has been fuller these past two months than it has ever been before. It’s one of the only places on campus where Jews feel like they don’t have to defend who they are or what they believe in.”

“JLIC campus couples have noted that the challenges have become a catalyst for a deeper connection to Judaism,” says Rabbi Josh Ross, OU-JLIC’s executive director. 

“Lots of students on campus have never felt prouder to be a Jew,” says Rabbi Buechler. And despite the ongoing tension and stress, most students are staying strong. “While hundreds of pro-Palestinian kids were protesting, one Jewish student, who is not particularly religious, donned a pair of tefillin and stood there facing them with pride,” he says. “We have students walking around campus wrapped in Israeli flags. A lot of Jewish students are doubling down on their Jewish identity.”

A Lifeline in the Public Schools

Noting a similar trend among high school teens, JSU National Director Devora Simon reports that, as of this February, more than thirty new JSU clubs were created in public schools since October 7, bringing the total to 320 clubs impacting some 15,000 teens across North America. Many more are in progress. 

JSU, run by NCSY staff, is brought into schools via the students who must request the club. “I’m getting requests from teens two to three times a day,” says Devora. “The JSU staff is working as hard as possible, with very quick turnaround, to support these students so they have that space in their high schools to connect with and express their Judaism without fear.” 

Additionally, more students are joining existing JSU clubs. NCSY West Coast Regional Director Rabbi Derek Gormin has seen a marked increase in the number of students joining the seventy-six clubs he oversees in California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Idaho. “Clubs that until now had twenty-five or thirty members now have more than 100,” he says. With clubs offering increased Israel education and advocacy, “everything is on steroids,” he says. 

Kids tend to join JSU in September and October, according to Rabbi Sammy Aronson, director of Mid-Island NCSY and JSU. “Often you see a drop in November as kids get more involved in their studies and extracurricular activities, especially sports.” “Not this year,” he says. “No one dropped out yet.” 

Houston JSU and NCSY Director Rabbi Nati Stern says that since the massacre, even after clubs are over, students “stick around and ask more questions; they want to stay and talk.”

In a school like Toronto’s Earl Haig Secondary School—the largest public school in the Toronto district, where JSU President Cole Fisher estimates there are some thirty Jewish teens out of a student body of around 2,500—JSU provides the only Jewish and pro-Israel education some students ever receive. And in the wake of the war in Israel, it’s become a lifeline.

Cole, fifteen, was raised as a Reform Jew with little in the way of ritualistic observance but with a strong emphasis on cultural Judaism. A post-Covid bar mitzvah trip to Israel at age fourteen helped him forge a deep connection to Israel, and he proudly became involved with NCSY and JSU at school. 

Dozens of Jewish students I’ve never seen before are reaching out for a Jewish class or just to talk to a rabbi for chizuk.

“If there was any antisemitism at my school before October 7, I didn’t notice it,” reports Cole. “Afterwards, suddenly there was a crazy influx of students posting about the war, calling Hamas terrorists ‘freedom fighters’ and throwing out words like ‘apartheid’ and ‘colonization.’ The Tuesday after the Hamas attack, students showed up at school wearing keffiyehs and ran around screaming ‘Allah Akbar’ and ‘I’m going to bomb you.’ The shift happened instantly.”

The first post-massacre JSU school club meeting was scheduled for that Friday, October 13, which also happened to be when a Hamas leader called for a global and violent day of jihad targeting Jewish businesses and individuals. Some Jewish students planned to stay home from school. But Cole’s father took a different tack, telling Cole to bring a baseball bat if it made him feel safer but to show up. “My dad had always taught me to be proud of who I am, but never was that more strongly impressed upon me than when he told me if I don’t show up at school and run the JSU club meeting, the other side wins,” said Cole. “So I went.”

Cole also attended the JSU presidents’ conference in New Jersey in late October and the Washington rally in November, where he joined some 300,000 Jews and allies of all ages to proudly and peacefully express solidarity with Israel. “If October 7 has any silver lining, I think it’s that Jews like me have become more motivated to stand together and be proud of who we are,” says Cole, who has taken it upon himself to don tefillin more often and to participate in more NCSY events. Cole also lit an extra menorah on Chanukah for the hostages.

“Being a part of NCSY and JSU has connected me to a community of people where I have the safe space to be myself,” he continues. “After the past few months, I’m more committed than ever to helping give other Jews, and even non-Jews who want to engage in dialogue about tough issues, that safe space. It’s both a responsibility and a privilege.” 

Cole was not the only JSU member who was profoundly affected by the Washington rally. It made an impression on many teens says Rabbi Stern, who flew from Houston with members of his JSU clubs. “Just being present in such a large crowd of other Jews had a deep impact,” he says. “So often, teens do not identify as Jewish in their public schools. October 7 pushed many of them to think: who am I? And many of them made a choice—they are choosing Judaism.”

Becoming a Jewish Activist

Another JSU president, sixteen-year-old Sofie Glassman from Long Island, New York, says that well before this past October, there was already plenty of antisemitism at East Meadow High School, where she is a student: swastikas in bathroom stalls, antisemitic comments, and the like. Sofie honed her Jewish activism chops in that kind of environment, so when October 7 happened, she was unfortunately prepared for what ensued. 

“I’ve become even more outspoken and proud of my Judaism in response to the increased hate we’re seeing,” she declares. “We can’t control what other people do; we can only control what we do in response, like continuing to make a kiddush Hashem and be an example of a good person.”

Sofie makes sure the school announces her JSU club meetings every week with its full name: The Expressing Pride in Israeli Culture Club. “It’s a small thing, but I think it’s powerful that everyone at East Meadow hears that regularly on the loudspeaker,” she says. Sofie also speaks at rallies and has a strong voice on social media, and these days she brings up her Judaism and Israel in school papers as much as possible. For a recent essay she submitted to the National Honor Society, for which the prompt was to write about beauty, Sofie wrote about the war in Israel, connecting her increased activism and encouraging others to find beauty amid tragedy.  

“My parents had previously raised the topic of switching schools, but I felt strongly that I won’t be scared away, especially now,” says Sofie. “When it’s time for college, I want to go somewhere where there’s a Jewish presence, but where it’s on the smaller side, so I can really be the advocate on campus on behalf of the Jewish people and Israel. I think that’s where I shine.”

In the context of the events of the past few months, Orthodox Jewish students are also considering where to attend college. Take Zac Levy, the only Orthodox Jewish senior at High Technology High School in Monmouth County, New Jersey, one of the top STEM high schools in the nation. The accomplished student and activist was always destined for the Ivy League; by sixteen, he already published a book about homelessness and had university-level research in particle physics and quantum computing under his belt. 

“After October 7, we took Harvard off my list of schools I was going to apply to,” says Zac. “Other schools moved down a few positions, and we seriously considered Dartmouth since my parents and I liked how the [university] dealt with the postwar situation.”

In the end, Zac is heading to Princeton in the fall, where he looks forward to speaking with people who might disagree with him but who are open to dialogue. He hopes to help expand their minds about what’s really happening in Israel and counteract some of the toxic effects of social media. 

If October 7 has any silver lining, I think it’s that Jews like me have become more motivated to stand together and be proud of who we are.

And even in his high school, where Zac says there is thankfully no outward antisemitism to speak of, he’s doing his part to instill college-bound students with a dose of reality. Zac reached out to a teacher of a senior elective called “Current Global Issues” to help ensure the planned curriculum was unbiased. “He was very receptive and showed me the videos he was planning to present in class, and I pointed out a few things I thought weren’t emphasized, like Israel’s efforts to come to a peace agreement, especially at Camp David,” says Zac, who previously undertook AIPAC advocacy training. “The teacher actually added it to his presentation, and I was proud I had facilitated that, so students could get a full and complete picture.”

Laura, too, is considering her options for graduate school. “I actually applied to Yeshiva University, which previously hadn’t been an option for me,” she explains. “But I don’t feel it’s compromising anything. It’s just going to be all the more fulfilling for my future.”

It’s a future that has also come into sharper focus for her since her recent experiences with antisemitism and fighting back. “I grew up always knowing that I wanted to marry someone Jewish and belong to the Jewish community,” she says, “but now I definitely feel I have stricter rules for myself about how I want to raise my kids and shape their awareness of who they are and what’s important to us as Jews.” 

Not all JSU clubs have seen an attendance increase. In fact, a few clubs have seen the opposite occur, with certain families. Parents in Brooklyn’s Russian community, for example, have counseled their children to conceal their Judaism in public, due to their understandable fear of the current climate. 

But Rabbi Mandel, NCSY Canada’s regional director, is encouraged that more people than not, especially the teens he works with, are reacting to contemporary hatred by clinging tighter to what defines us as Jews. He points to a parent-teen Chanukah event he ran that sold out quickly. “We had the most registrations we’ve ever had for any event,” says Rabbi Mandel. “That speaks to more of a willingness by both parents and their children to engage publicly with their Judaism. There’s definitely a theme of people wanting to ignite that light inside of them outwardly.” 

Rabbi Stern agrees. He recalls a Thanksgiving JSU Shabbaton, held a few weeks after the massacre, where he asked kids seated around a bonfire to share what they are grateful for. One student explained how the uptick in antisemitism had caused him to rethink his priorities: “Of all the things I’ve learned,” he said, “I learned who I belong with and who I want to surround myself with.”  


Tova Cohen is a writer and marketing and communications professional. She lives in Bergen County, New Jersey, with her family. 


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Gideon Askowitz – Voices From Campus

Rebecca Massel – Voices from Campus

Adin Moskowitz – Voices from Campus

Eitan Fischer – Voices from Campus

Isaac Ohrenstein – Voices from Campus

Chizuk on Campus

This article was featured in the Spring 2024 issue of Jewish Action.
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