In the spacious Waltham living room of one of her congregants, Ariel Hendelman arranged 10 chairs in a circle. Nearby, an unlit candle waited for its moment and a screen sat ready for a Zoom connection.
As the spiritual leader for B’nai Or of Boston, Hendelman had organized a hybrid vigil last Tuesday for congregants to share their feelings over the war in Israel.
B’nai Or is a Jewish Renewal congregation, and Hendelman said the people gathered in the circle were all aged 65 or older. Nearly a dozen others, also seniors, joined virtually from their homes. The rules were straightforward: Speak from the heart. No interrupting. Keep it under two minutes. Stick to “I” statements.
“What I heard from multiple people was — I think three different people — said specifically that they were having pain over not being able to talk about the situation in Israel and Gaza with their children, who are in their 20s and 30s,” Hendelman said.
The parents, she said, appeared to feel their adult children lacked the ability to hold the nuance and complexity of the situation.
“What they were hearing and experiencing from their children was, ‘I don't want to talk about Israel. And that's it.’ And, ‘We're not going to see eye to eye, so we're not going to talk about it.’ And there was so much pain,” Hendelman said.
She didn’t want to speak to her congregants’ political leanings, nor whether they identify as Zionist — broadly defined as the movement supporting an independent state for the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland. Still, Hendelman said, many American Jews in their 60s and 70s have personal ties to the history of Zionism, including the establishment of the state of Israel after World War II.
“And I think from the perspective of those in their 20s and 30s, there is more of a call for a reckoning with that; an end to the Zionist project altogether, in [the thinking] that a free Palestine can’t exist side by side with the Zionist dream,” she said.
Eli Gerzon, 39, a social media consultant and writer in Arlington, feels that Zionist dream directly contradicts with the values of freedom and pluralism.
Gerzon, who observes the major Jewish holidays, has been arrested twice in the past month along with other pro-Palestinian protesters demanding a ceasefire in Gaza: once last Friday on the Brandeis University campus, and three weeks ago in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol alongside hundreds of other Jews. The “vast majority” of the protesters arrested there, Gerzon said, appeared to be under 40.
Gerzon said they can understand why many Jews have the perspective of being an oppressed people; Gerzon's Jewish Dutch grandfather narrowly escaped the Holocaust during World War II.
But they also feel that trauma can create a blind spot, they said.
“The closer you are to that, the harder it is to wrap your head around, ‘Oh! We can also be the oppressor,’” they said. “Individuals who happen to be Jewish can also be oppressive.”
That’s what they feel is happening now, with the Israeli military's intense bombardment of the densely populated Gaza Strip.
Generational differences on Israel aren’t new
Even before the war, U.S. Jews viewed Israel differently based on age demographics. In a 2020 survey, the Pew Research Center found that among Jews ages 50 and older, 51% said that caring about Israel was essential to what being Jewish means to them — nearly twice the percentage of their counterparts under 30.
“For almost as far back as we can measure, younger Jews were more distant and critical of Israel than older ones. I used to joke it was a bit like what Mark Twain said about his father: ‘The older I get, the smarter he gets,’” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history and former director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. “So the older Jews get, the better Israel seems.”
Sarna said there are multiple factors for that phenomenon, starting with the lived experience.
“The younger generation doesn't remember 1948 when Israel was created and what that meant for over a million refugees. It doesn't remember the Six-Day War when Israel's neighbors vowed to throw the Jews into the sea,” Sarna said.
Another factor behind the generation gap, Sarna said, is the fact that many younger Jews have grown up in homes in which one parent is Jewish and the other is not. This can impact a child’s identity and their familiarity with Israel, he said.
Unity in times of persecution
What has struck Sarna in recent weeks, he said, is how Jewish students have come together in support of each other, united in grief over the more than 200 hostages and 1,200 Israelis killed by Hamas militants on October 7. He acknowledged the dissenters, but said there’s a comfort felt between Jews in this moment that wasn’t there before the war.
“I really think that the big story is that Jews are coming together,” Sarna said. “I’ve heard it from college campuses, and I’ve seen it at synagogues.”
The Pew survey indicated that division over Israel may depend, in part, of how religious they are. Orthodox Jewish Americans in 2020 were much more likely to rally around the Israeli flag, with nearly nine in 10 saying they believe God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people.
By contrast, only one-third of Jewish Americans overall say they believe God gave the land that is now Israel to the Jewish people. And American congregations reported being less unified on the subject than a similar survey taken seven years prior, according to Pew Research Center.
Solomon Sheena is president of Beth Abraham Sephardic Congregation of New England based in Brookline. He described his synagogue as “very pro-Israel,” noting that services often include “a prayer for the state of Israel and for the Israeli troops.”
His synagogue boasts a vibrant tapestry of congregants from across the Middle East, including Iran, Israel, Morocco and Egypt. His own father fled Baghdad as a child when Iraqi Jews encountered discrimination there, he said.
The Beth Abraham congregation has a solid distribution of age groups, he said.
“And while there may be a gap in the way people are viewing things in general, it has brought these generations together. What I do notice is the politics of Israel have been put aside and it's pro-Israel everywhere you look,” he said.
Still, Sheena acknowledges that old and young are processing the conflict differently. For some older folks, the conflict, and the wave of antisemitism that has accompanied it, has brought back painful memories of events they thought they’d left far behind.
Also, he said while all generations cherish human life, elders tend to have a more rock-solid support of the Jewish state — regardless of its military actions. At least 11,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since Oct. 7, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.
“There are a number of younger Jews who have a hard time seeing the killing of innocent Palestinian civilians and still being 100% behind Israel,” he said.
Sheena said, while there’s been consensus in supporting Israel within his own family and his synagogue more broadly, it can vary from “family to family.”
Hendelman at B’nai Or of Boston said people need to lean into the variations, and nuance, to understand one another. What would happen, she wondered, if older and younger Jews could sit face to face in their angst, solely with the intention of helping each other through?
After leading a chant by candlelight at last week’s Waltham vigil, Hendelman offered prayers for the hostages as those gathered mourned all of the lives lost since October 7. The chant she’d selected was Nachamu Ami from Isaiah, a passage of comfort during times of trial.
“Maybe that's the best we can do right now — just try to comfort ourselves and comfort each other,” she said. “And just listen to each other."
Produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.