Excuse Me, Are You Jewish?

Did October 7 change people’s perception of Judaism? Mishpacha’s team visits Penn Station to find out

Photos: Jeff Zorabedian

The events of October 7 were a wake-up call for religious Jews everywhere, galvanizing them to action.

But what about Jews not particularly identified with Judaism or Eretz Yisrael? Jews who disdain all media aside from the New York Times? Were they also shaken by the attacks, by the frightening surge of anti-Semitism around the world? Have they been harassed by pro-Hamas elements or forced to reconsider where they stand vis-à-vis their Jewish identity?

We decided to ask the Jew on the Street what he thinks. And there’s no better place to find mainstream, unaffiliated Jews than in the heart of Manhattan.

Our initial plan was to literally ask people outside, on the street. But rain and cold drove us inside, to the concourses of Penn Station, where we hoped we could collar some unaffiliated and agreeable members of the tribe, and maybe even survey a few non-Jews as well.

Taking the Pulse

Leading our charge is 29-year-old Nachi Gordon, who you may know from his popular Meaningful People podcast. The son of Larry Gordon — considered by many the creator of Jewish radio and currently editor and publisher of the Five Towns Jewish Times — Nachi has media in his DNA. (Even his grandfather Nison a”h arrived in the US at 18 as a correspondent for a Polish newspaper.)

Meaningful People grew out of Meaningful Minute, a daily one-minute inspirational video. “I started by taking the most meaningful parts from speeches given by rabbis,” Nachi says. “They were among the first short-form media clips in the frum world, and it just took off.” (Many of those uplifting messages were later compiled into an ArtScroll book, Meaningful Minute.)

Now with Meaningful People, Nachi’s media empire has grown to 200,000 followers. He recently built a new studio where he produces the content that reaches close to five million people.

Today, Nachi will be taking his interview skills out of his usual comfort zone: Now it will be short conversations with people whose lives are very different from his. The plan is that he will approach passersby to strike up short but meaningful conversations about how things have changed since October 7. (I’m hoping his wholesome, boy-next-door demeanor will make it easier, but he will receive plenty of flat rejections or “Sorry, I’ve got a train to catch” excuses. I mean, it is New York.)

Videographer Michael Apfel joins us, and we’re off, meandering around the large public area at the entrance to the Long Island Railroad, and facing our first challenge: to pinpoint who might really be Jewish.

It’s midday, a slow time to catch commuters. We stand in a sort of atrium at the bottom of the escalator leading down from Seventh Avenue, where the high ceilings, foot traffic, and intermittent PA announcements create a din that makes it hard to hear sometimes, and it takes Nachi a couple of tries before he finds someone willing to chat.

It’s a Crazy Time for You Jews
Don: Netanyahu did right.
Nachi’s first obliging bystander is a man named Don, standing near the Duane Reade pharmacy.

“It seemed like he was just waiting for us,” Nachi commented later. “He kept making eye contact and was willing to speak on the record.”

Don turns out to not be Jewish. Tall, in a polo shirt and casual jacket, he tells us he does consulting for brokerage firms and schleps into the city from his home in Port Jefferson, Long Island, when necessary for business.

“How are your Jewish friends dealing with the situation in Israel?” Nachi asks.

“My Jewish friends are concerned,” he says. “There’s a small Jewish community in Port Jefferson. My daughter’s best friend is Jewish.

“Netanyahu did right,” he offers emphatically. “Hamas took over the Palestinian people, and he was right to go after them. The people who are pro-Palestinian and pro-Hamas just aren’t very educated. Biden, Obama… I don’t know what’s going on there. Obama never showed any respect for Netanyahu. He made him wait hours for meetings. Maybe it goes back to the influence of George Soros. But what’s happening with them all is a travesty. I hope Netanyahu stays in power.”

As we finish our conversation with Don, a black man runs by yelling, “Free Palestine.”

Richard: Danger all over

Next, we come across Richard, stocky and bald with a goatee and gold chain, from Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood. He works nights as an armed security guard at a hospital.

“It’s a crazy time,” he says, when Nachi asks his opinion on the war. “Hey, I come from a neighborhood where you can get killed just for wearing the wrong color. There’s danger all over. Lots of people don’t need a reason to kill.”

Paolo: We don’t learn from history

Nachi approaches Paolo, a tall, graying gentleman with glasses and a stylish, patterned indigo scarf. Turns out he’s an Italian gastroenterologist with credentials from Yeshiva University, Montefiore, and Columbia University, who serves as an assistant professor at Mount Sinai Hospital.

He lives upstate in Plattsburgh, where he maintains a medical practice, and he doesn’t hesitate to share his take on the war; he’s no friend of terrorists or anti-Semites.

“We don’t learn from history,” he says. “The younger generation doesn’t see the bigger picture. They see what’s happening in the moment without understanding the wider perspective. “Who are we to judge the Israelis? Americans are lucky — they never lived through a war.”

The doctor tells us his grandfather was part of the Resistance against Mussolini during World War II, and he was killed by the Nazis.

“So why do people hate Jews?” Nachi interjects.

Paolo laughs. “Because they are brighter, richer, more successful. They’re aggressive, they’re entrepreneurs. They don’t shut up — they say it like it is, they are like, um....”

“Gadflies?” I offer.

“Yes. They had no homeland, they went from country to country, and they developed resilience and skills.”

Nods all around.

“You teach at a college,” I offer. “How do you feel about the political climate for Jews on campus and the way the heads of universities refused to stand up for Jews?”

He shakes his head in disgust. “Columbia will do like the mainstream instead of backing the cause that is right. They want to do what’s easy, what makes money for them.”

“What would you tell students at Columbia who are being harassed?” Nachi asks.

“It’s worrisome,” Paolo acknowledges. “I would tell them not to quit. This is a low moment in history, but don’t give up, don’t leave. Get a good education and become resilient. You survived as a people, and you will survive this.”

Diane and Diana: No need to worry

Two women in their 50s are walking toward us, so Nachi corners them: Diane and Diana from Massapequa, both blonde, neither Jewish. Diane is a teacher, and Diana works at JFK in Homeland Security, dealing with international flights. As we speak, we see that Diana’s profession may influence her views.

“Do you have friends who are Jewish?” Nachi asks.

They nod.

“Do you think your Jewish friends feel threatened since October 7?”

They hesitate.

“It’s bad, what’s going on,” Diana ventures. “I can empathize with the people who are feeling unsafe, or targeted. But I don’t know that people in New York are so negative. I think there are as many people who want to help Israel and Jews as there are against them.”

“The negative people are louder,” Nachi suggests, and they agree.

“It’s been a rough situation over there that’s been going on for years,” she says. “Most people don’t want to see more people dying over it. We’d like to see some kind of resolution.”

“The pro-Hamas people are just more vocal,” Diane says. “When you speak to people quietly, they’re pro-Israel. I feel like New York is still a safe place, and Jews don’t need to worry.”

“Doesn’t feel so safe to me,” Nachi comments afterward. “We’ve already had a guy run by yelling ‘Free Palestine.’ To me it seems like things got a little crazy.”

It’s How You Define Your Identity
Dean: I was brought up that you should love your enemy

Our mandate at Penn Station was to speak to unaffiliated Jews. But how to find them? The majority of people walking by do not look Jewish, and frankly, it’s a little awkward to repeatedly approach people asking, “Are you Jewish?” (Kol hakavod to all the Lubavitchers out there.)

But we keep walking, and finally… a guy stops and tells us yes, he’s a Jew.

Dean from Long Island has cropped hair and looks like he’s in his twenties. When Nachi asks how his Judaism has changed since the war, he surprises us.

“I was actually in Israel on October 7.

“I was in Jerusalem and then I went to Tel Aviv,” he says. “On the way there, I had to get out of the taxi a few times and hide from the missiles. Most people from here haven’t seen that perspective.”

He says his father is Israeli, but his Hebrew is only “so-so.” We ask if his Jewish identity has been impacted by October 7, if he’s changed internally.

“My opinions haven’t changed — I want there to be peace,” he replies. “I see the anger on both sides. I was brought up on the philosophy that you should love your enemy. I see that Jews are angry, so this principle of ‘love your enemy’ is really being put to the test. It’s a test for us to be able to look beyond all the hate. But even in this horror, we can be a bridge, and look beyond the hate to what is true and just. We should find a way to make peace with our neighbors to the south.

“Everyone has lost people, there is indiscriminate horror regardless of which side you’re on. Everyone wants to protect his own family, his tribe.”

Dean says he was actually in the process of making aliyah when the war started. “I was working at the Technion doing research. I  invent things to help the planet and create peace between people.”

That sounds fascinating.

“Where did you get your schooling?” we ask.

“Here,” he says. “I left school to begin my start-up.”

He describes his company’s work in places like West Africa and the Middle East. He talks about “re-sculpting the economic and geographical landscape” to improve relations between countries.

“You have to de-incentivize conflict so it’s not worth it for countries to be in conflict,” he says.

“So what is the path to peace?” Nachi asks.

“It’s a political issue,” Dean says. “You have to look at how commodities chains operate, and then you can cause the narratives and culture to shift. The media is rooted in economics. You can change even Iran and Israel.”

“So how could we make peace with Hamas?”

“We can build bridges in a profitable manner and de-incentivize war. If we turn the economic tide, we can change the media narrative.”

We’re sensing a definite disconnect here.

Nachi interjects, “But it’s in the Hamas charter to kill Jews. They imbibe it with their mothers’ milk.”

“Yes, that is definitely a challenge,” Dean admits. “There’s no easy solution. But that doesn’t have to mean it won’t work out in the future.”

I’ve heard enough.

“But it can’t just be about economics,” I put in. “Look at Gaza. They were given greenhouses and all the means to succeed, yet they destroyed them and built tunnels and armaments.”

“Yes,” he concedes. “Leadership is not simple.”

The Mishpacha team exchange looks, and we try not to openly scratch our heads. Is this guy for real?

“How do you feel about the way students have been harassed on campuses?” Nachi asks.

“It’s so sad. There’s a lot of miscommunication. I know where they’re coming from, it’s all tribal psychology.”

Michael, our videographer, asks, “But what about your Jewish identity? People have been yelling ‘Free Palestine’ at us here because we’re wearing kippahs. Can you escape it?”

“What matters is how you define your own identity,” Dean replies. “Others can maybe tell that you’re a Jew, but it all depends on how you define that yourself. They try to destroy you, but you have to stay true to yourself. Truth and justice go hand in hand. It doesn’t have to matter if you stay true to your own truth.”

“What about your family?” we ask. “Do you have family in the military?”

“Yeah, we do have people in the military. It’s hard. My family doesn’t harbor a lot of hate. You have to hold your own, keep your vision, and see beyond the horrors of the present. It’s like the people who went through tests in the Holocaust, but saw beyond and envisioned the future and were able to get beyond many things. We have to get past this and keep the perspective of tikkun olam.”

“Does this bring you closer to being Jewish or not?” we ask.

“A lot of my identity has to do with my family,” he acknowledges. “My connection to Judaism is very much involved through family. I have no certainties about religion, but I have values that preserve the values of my ancestors, and strengthening family ties is one of the best things we can do. One day we’ll wake up and see we’re all one big family. We can all be brothers, or not… Jews are more genetically close than other people, but I see everything as family — even nature, the forests, the trees.”

Dean takes leave of us and gets on the escalator. A smart kid with a head full of loose, abstract ideas and diffuse altruism. He wants to change the world for the better, and his heart is in the right place.

“I found him maddening with his talk of making peace with our enemies,” Nachi remarks. “He pushes a peace narrative while overlooking the fact that our enemies want to kill us. The solution has nothing to do with economics. Every bridge we build, they burn down.”

Are We Safe in Penn Station?
Evan: Defend yourselves

Moving right along…. we briefly stop Evan, a clean-cut, non-Jewish man in his thirties.

He’s in a hurry, but he stops long enough to say, “I’m pro-Israel. Israel has a right to defend itself.”

Turns out he works for Fox 5.

An Arab-looking guy runs by and yells, “Free Palestine!”

“What should we do about those types?” we ask him.

“Don’t let it bother you,” he advises. “Make sure you’re able to defend yourselves. There are always people who are anti.”

“He’s right,” Nachi says (and enrolls in karate classes the following week).

New York’s Finest

As we stroll on, we’re approached by a tall, loose-limbed, dreadlocked black man, eating Dunkin’ Donuts out of a bag. He calls, “Shalom. Mazel tov. Todah.”

Nachi returns his greeting and asks what he thinks of the situation in Israel. “Do you know what happened on October 7?”

This gets the man started on a rant, which starts to sound like a sermon as his voice rises.

“People should be fearful to fall into the hands of the living G-d. When you’re face to face before Him, it’s a fearful thing. But you, brother, you see him every day. You love G-d, but what kind of G-d would want you to kill babies?”

Now he’s just yelling, getting himself more and more worked up. Finally, enraged, he throws his bag of donuts on the floor and stalks angrily off.

That’s when we’re approached by the police captain in charge of security for the area. He wants to know what we’re doing.

He’s friendly, and once we explain our project, he’s fine with our presence. But he tells us we need to register with the security office down the hall, just in case there’s an incident.

“There’s a lot of mental health issues going on around here,” he says.

Given the number of crazy people who seem to be hanging around, this is not a bad idea.

Rich: Don’t ask me about middle ground

Moving down the hall… bingo, Nachi nabs another Jewish guy. This one gives only his first name, Rich. With his pointed features, and button-down shirt, you might take him for a schoolteacher, but he is actually a salesman who lives in Merrick.

Nachi begins, “Has your Judaism changed at all because of October 7?”

“No,” he answers, but he holds up his hand to display a rubber “I Stand with Israel” bracelet. “I saw someone wearing one at my tefillin club. I got one and I’ve been wearing it for months. It shows I stand with Israel and that I stand for peace.”

His next words contradict his assertion that his Judaism hasn’t changed. “I go to a monthly tefillin club,” he says, “but these days I go on a weekly basis.”

Is that in his synagogue? “No, it’s with Chabad,” he says. “I guess that makes me a little more active than I used to be. I’m leaning in more.”

What does he think about the many pro-Hamas people we see on the news?

“I think the non-Jews are frustrated,” he says. “It’s a tough situation. October 7 was horrible.”

“What would you say to college kids who have to face pro-Hamas activists?” Nachi asks.

Rich frowns. “You know, I was working on Whitehall Street when 9/11 happened. I stayed there for hours, helping with triage till late. I never want to let terrorists think they’ve won. I would tell the college kids, if you take off your yarmulke, you’ve let them win.”

Rich seems concerned about staking out too strident a position.

“There were so many atrocities on October 7. I’m not so close to the situation, but decimating Gaza is not the answer. We need to find a middle ground. That’s a general problem in the world today — no one finds the middle ground, even in US politics. Both sides have to give in.”

“Wasn’t giving away Gaza in 2006 a middle ground?” Nachi asks.

But Rich is unable to define what he thinks a middle ground would look like.

“I’m not that well versed on the topic,” he says. When asked, he admits he’s never been to Israel.

“You have a lot of generationally instilled hatred going on there,” he says. “Even if the Jews left Israel, it would still be there. Those people have been raised for hatred. We have to maybe replace it with generations of love? There are no quick answers.

“I pray every morning,” he maintains. “I pray for Israel, and I pray for the world to find a solution. I have a whole prayer list. Give me your name and I’ll pray for you.”

“You’re wearing that bracelet,” Michael says. “Do you feel it’s important to be more Jewish now?”

Rich says he’s very connected to G-d, but less connected to religion per se, weekly tefillin club notwithstanding. He expresses his connection to Hashem through spontaneous prayer of his own devising.

“I put tefillin on to feel more connected to G-d. I thank G-d. I start with gratitude, then I pray for people. I don’t have an aversion to religion, I just don’t practice it.”

We ask him what he hopes to achieve by wearing the wristband.

“I hope people see my wristband, will see that I stand with Israel, and maybe will want to join me. I really want to stand for world peace.”

Is he worried about sending his teens to college, given the climate on campuses?

Rich laughs. “I’m more worried about how to pay for it.” he says. “Worrying is not healthy. I live in the moment.”

“It’s so sad — he says his Judaism didn’t change, but it so evidently did, and he won’t define it that way,” Nachi says as we move on. “He’s like a tinok shenishba. You see the confusion when he says you have to find a middle ground, but he has no idea what.”

Violence Never Solved Anything
Jeff:  I Worry About the Kids

Seems like we’ve exhausted the area near the LIRR, so we walk further along the terminal until we reach the NJ Transit embarkation areas. Michael spots a tall, middle-aged man with glasses consulting the departures board, wheelie suitcase at his feet.

“Are you Jewish?” Michael asks.

“Do it matter?” the man responds, answering a question with a question. A dead giveaway.

Jeff, a General Electric engineer who lives in Albany, tells us, “I bring power to the world.” (A Google search later reveals that he is indeed a high-level engineer with 13 patents to his name, specialized in reducing carbon emissions in power plants.)

Nachi asks Jeff how he feels about his Jewish identity since October 7.

“Well,” he says, “you have to separate how you deal with faith from how you deal with Israel. Faith is a function of your belief in G-d. With regard to Israel, though, I think Netanyahu is not doing enough to get the hostages back. That doesn’t change my faith — I’m just worried about the hostages. We also have to find a long-term solution for the Palestinians so they can have food and water and a fulfilling life.

“We have millions in Gaza being treated like garbage because of Hamas. If we kill one of theirs, then they kill one of ours. We have to take Hamas out of power. I don’t know how — it’s not my problem.”

Jeff states his views on history, that violence never solves anything. But he does blame Arab intransigence for most of Israel’s problems. “None of them accepted Palestinian refugees in 1948. If they’d taken them, we wouldn’t be having these problems, but instead they left them stranded there.”

Nachi asks Jeff if the current conflict has affected his personal security. “Do you yourself feel more vulnerable these days?”

“Oh, yes,” he says. “There was a threat at my synagogue. Someone fired a weapon in the street, and there were children in the building. Was it directed at us? I’m not sure, but I sure don’t see any guards outside churches. I worry that children could be targeted, and about the rise of anti-Semitism in this country. No one should be targeted because he’s Jewish or non-Jewish, or black, or short, or whatever. We are all G-d’s children.”

When asked if he’s more aware of being Jewish, he responds that he’s more concerned.

“I don’t wear a kippah outside of the synagogue, although some of my kids do,” he says. “When you wear a yarmulke, people see you as part of a bigger situation, and think they can say whatever they want. But why is that now acceptable? They wouldn’t do it to someone wearing a cross.”

His cell phone rings. “Oops, gotta take this call,” he says, and he waves a friendly goodbye as he strides away.

Nancy: Being Jewish Doesn’t Equal Being Israeli

Nachi strikes up a conversation with Nancy, a slender woman in her sixties with a gray pageboy and burgundy beret. She’s a lawyer from DC, and she’s not Jewish.

“I’m a lapsed Catholic,” she says with a laugh. “I’m what my friends call a grocery store Catholic — I choose what I want.”

She has many Jewish friends. What are they feeling these days?

“Jews and the ones who love them are concerned,” she says. “There seems to be no clear understanding that being Jewish does not equal being Israeli or the Israeli government. It’s very important for people to see that distinction.”

Nachi asks if her friends feel safe.

“People should feel safe everywhere in the world,” she says. “But you have to understand that many people are very upset. I support the World Food Kitchen, and I’m very upset at what just happened. I know that in war, things will go wrong, that people will make mistakes, and the fog of war covers everything. But Israel will lose support because of this.”

What should the Israelis do differently?

“Israel should have better communication in their armaments and have observers in the field,” she states. “Israel has to abide by the rules of war. Israel is exhausted, but you can’t just blow Hamas away.

“They’re falling into a trap. This will just create more violence. With every child killed, all their male relatives will run to join up. Hamas is an ideology, and by killing children, you make martyrs. The same thing happened in Vietnam and with the Taliban. There are way too many Gazan civilians killed relative to soldiers.”

What about the Jewish hostages?

“Oh, we’ll never know what’s going on with the hostages,” she cries. “The first party responsible is Hamas, and the second is Netanyahu. I feel that very strongly.”

“You’re a proud American, right?” Nachi says. “What if Mexico took hostages? Wouldn’t the US go in and give its all to rescue them?”

“Yes, but Israel is not following the rules of war.”

“Is Hamas following rules of war?” Nachi ripostes.

“Hamas is not a nation state. Israel is,” she says.

Michael steers her away from this argument. “What should a Jew think about his future in America?” he asks.

“Oh, my Jewish friends are tortured,” Nancy says. “The situation is making them think about their position, especially with Passover coming up. It makes me so sad to walk by synagogue after synagogue and see police protection. You don’t see that at St. Patrick’s or the Presbyterian churches. Around the corner from me, there’s a Jewish preschool, and little pre-K kids have to go through metal detectors every day.”

Nachi nods his agreement, and asks, “How should Jews think about their identity?”

“Each one should examine and reach his own conclusions. I’m very concerned about this country. I thought those tropes like ‘Jews run the world’ from 50 years ago were over. Judge Breier recently quoted Camus’s novel The Plague, in which he writes that ‘the germ has come back and it’s for everyone to oppose it.’ ”

We take our leave of Nancy amicably, but in many ways, I find her very scary, precisely because she is so articulate, thoughtful, well-read, and concerned with justice — and yet has clearly drunk the CNN Kool-Aid that tells her Israel is the bully in this conflict and has no regard for human life. She seems to love her Jewish friends, yet hate the Jewish state.

Nachi was spooked by her vehemence when she dismissed the question about the hostages.

“If it were one of her kids, do you think she’d say that?” he says. “Doesn’t she see how much we value life and even proper burial of the bodies? I feel like she was more sympathetic to the plight of the Arabs than the Jews.”

Better to be Proud
Noam:  I’ve become more Orthodox

As we make our way from NJ Transit back towards the LIRR, we encounter a forty-ish man in jeans with wire-rim glasses and a sensitive face. There is no kippah atop his short, curly hair, but it turns out he has one in his pocket. He is Noam; an Israeli is willing to speak to us.

“How do you identify on the Jewish spectrum?” Nachi asks.

“I think you could call me Modern Orthodox,” he replies carefully.

“Has that changed since October 7?”

“Yes, it definitely did. I have become more Orthodox.”

Noam explains that he was raised secular, but his wife came from a “very Orthodox” religious background. He agreed to keep Shabbos when they got married.

“My wife noticed that after October 7, I started to put on my tefillin every day,” he says. “I always take my yarmulke with me now, and I became very strict about kashrus. I think that after what happened, I have more of an understanding that Judaism was always here, is here to stay, and that there will always be people coming to destroy us as a people. But we will not let it happen. We believe in Hashem and that He will help us.”

Noam is an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Nachi asks, “What do you say to a Jewish student who isn’t sure if he should wear a kippah?”

“He should do what’s comfortable,” Noam says. “I told a Jewish colleague I want to put it on now, that it’s better to show you’re Jewish, to be proud and not ashamed. This is who we are. We’re in the US, the land of freedom of religion. If I see other people wearing kippot, it encourages me to wear one, too.”

That being said, Noam acknowledges that the atmosphere has gotten more hostile.

“I’ve heard statements that sound just like Germany and Poland in the 1940s — Jews control all the money, etc. People have said it to me even though they know I’m Jewish. It’s sad.”

“You work on a college campus. What are you seeing there?” I ask.

He hesitates. “I prefer not to talk about it. Let’s leave my work out of it. But you see anti-Semitism everywhere. Demonstrations can be everywhere. I was so disappointed to see the presidents of Penn, of MIT, of Harvard, say that anti-Semitic threats ‘depend on context.’ That’s a bushah. Forget context. Anti-Semitism is just wrong.”

“Do you find your Jewish students more aware of their Judaism since October 7?” I ask.

“Yes,” Noam says. “The Jewish world in general is more aware. The rest of the world doesn’t understand what we deal with in Israel. I lived there 40 years ago. People don’t know the history. The protesters say, ‘From the river to sea,’ and they have no idea what river or sea.

“Recently a non-Jewish girl was talking to me about West Bank ‘settlements,’ and I told her, ‘Why do you call them ‘settlements?’ Why do the Jews need to get out of Hevron? We’re there 4,000 years. Our ancestors are buried there. In 1929 Jews were murdered in Hevron and Jaffa.”

“Finally, a Yid who was open to admitting his Judaism changed after October 7,” Nachi comments as we move on.

Lisa: People are Nervous

We really would like to speak to just one more Jew, preferably a woman for a change. We just can’t seem to find one. (“And they talk about a shidduch crisis?” Nachi quips.)

At long last, we find her. When we approach Lisa, a forty-ish financial planner, she grins and says, “It’s always good to see my people.”

Nachi asks if her religious identity has changed since October 7.

“Oh, yes,” she says. “I’m much more devoted to Israel. My family passed on those values, I guess. My grandmother was a big proponent of Israel, a Hadassah member. My mom traveled to Israel a few times.

“Everyone has a different opinion about the war, and while I’m not in a position to argue about policy, I’m more supportive of Israel even than some Israelis I know.”

We ask if she feels more Jewish now.

“I always identified as Jewish, but I’m much more conscious of it now,” she says.

She describes growing up in “kind of a bubble” in Syracuse, where there weren’t a lot of Jews. She met more Jews when she went to college in Rochester, but now she lives in unfriendly surroundings, a heavily Muslim section of Queens.

“I will take action if I see things I don’t like, like anti-Semitic signage,” she says. “I’ll cross out words. I didn’t know the Arabs hated us so much. I had to stop doing business with some people. Others keep quiet, so we’re okay.”

Lisa has encountered real anti-Semitism in the workplace. “I don’t generally call people out on it. My mom was the type to answer back if she heard something. You didn’t want to mess with my mom or my grandma — they were tough women.” She laughs. “With them, you’d never think Jews could be victims.”

“Do you think I should be scared to go around with my kippah?” Nachi asks.

“No,” she says. “I don’t go around with a star, but then again, why not? I’ve often gone out of my way to approach Jewish people — well, not men — and say, ‘Shabbat Shalom, I’m with you.’ I try to do my part, to reassure people.”

We ask her if she’s gotten more religious after October 7, but she answers that she’s Reform.

“Maybe if I lived in Israel, I would go along with the religion more, but I’m a single person, and I feel like the religion is more oriented toward family, so I feel less welcome.”

“Would you light Shabbos candles?” Nachi asks. “I can get you some.”

“I get them from the guys on 47th Street,” Lisa says with a laugh.

“Do you feel safe in the US?” I ask.

“Pretty much,” she replies. “Jews have a 70 to 80 percent popularity rating. The pro-Hamas people are a fringe group. I had a roommate who was an Arab. I didn’t even know, and she didn’t care I was Jewish.

“Anyway, where would I go? Israel? I don’t see it happening. But if other people are feeling nervous, I totally get it.”

Wrapping It Up

“It’s sad,” says Nachi as we gather up our equipment. “So many of those Jews were more anti-Israel than the non-Jews.”

Why is that? Do unaffiliated Jews consume a bigger New York Times diet? Does the media lead them to feel misplaced compassion for our enemies? Are we our own worst critics?

And should we feel reassured that we met so many non-Jews who were supportive? Our sample was not exactly scientific or representative, and public opinion is capricious.

I was struck by how many people expressed opinions that were only vaguely formulated and even contradictory. It seems like our unaffiliated brethren are very confused.

Our main goal in this little adventure was to see if non-affiliated Jews have been changed in some way by the war in Israel, and from our very informal sampling, it seemed clear that at least some of them have become more involved, aware, or religiously committed because of the war. And even if not, well, perhaps their encounters with a few intrepid journalists from Mishpacha will cause them to think twice next time they hear those chants about bodies of water.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1008)

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