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The Dartmouth
April 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Q&A with Chabad Rabbi Moshe Gray

Gray spoke with The Dartmouth about his recent visit to Israel to rethink Birthright’s curriculum in the context of the Israel-Hamas War.

Courtesy of Moshe Gray

Dartmouth Chabad Rabbi Moshe Gray visited Israel with Birthright, a non-profit organization that sends around 50,000 Jewish students from around the world to Israel every year on a free, 10-day heritage trip, according to their website. Gray, one of 20 educators from across the U.S. on the trip, gathered with other leaders of the Jewish community in late January to reimagine Birthright’s curriculum and bear witness to the state of Israel after the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7. Having returned from his trip, Gray recounted his experience with Birthright in Israel and the future of Birthright trips for Dartmouth’s Jewish community.

In what ways are you rethinking the Birthright program after the Oct. 7 attacks in general? How are you rethinking it for Dartmouth students in particular?

MG: As you can imagine, there are not a lot of Birthright groups going to Israel right now. It’s no surprise that Israel is in the middle of a war, and really for the first time since Birthright’s inception, which was over 25 years now, we’ve never experienced this. This was a trip put together by Birthright to, in a nutshell, think about what Birthright education is going to look like going forward. How do we educate around this both in reaction to Oct. 7 and in a proactive way? It’s a really good time to rethink a lot of things. 

Birthright is a huge organization. It’s an impactful organization. But how we educate around Israel, around Judaism, around Zionism — all those different things need to be thought through and thought through well. So, it will be interesting to see what Birthright ultimately chooses to do vis-a-vis their itineraries and how they train their tour educators and their staff members.

What are your goals on how to move forward with the Birthright program in both a reactive and proactive way following these attacks?

MG: Part of it is going to be, for example, will Birthright trips visit what they call the Gaza envelope, with all these kibbutzim [Jewish agricultural communities]? And if yes, what’s the educational model around them? We did visit Kfar Aza, one of the kibbutzim Hamas attacked. It’s very hard to put into words being there — seeing the utter destruction. It wasn’t dispassionate. Where Hamas went in was pure, utter destruction. We heard testimonies from people who, when the sirens went off on Oct. 7 at 6:29 in the morning, they ran into their safe rooms. I don’t know how you teach that. To me, it’s about bearing witness and going and seeing this and that’s up for discussion. In some cases, there’s no light in that darkness. It’s just pure death. And you can’t educate around that. I think Birthright will have to figure out how that looks. 

On the flip side, I think we should elevate Judaism to the point where students that go on Birthright are proud of Judaism. Again, it’s not necessarily that everybody has to be the same, but a staff member who may be Zionist but never considers themselves all that Jewish needs to bring that to the forefront so that the students themselves are educated. I would imagine that the Nova music festival will be a site that groups do go to because, unlike the kibbutz which wants visitors, it is a big field and doesn’t require permission from community members to travel there.

What did you learn from having been in Israel during these tumultuous times? What are the general sentiments there, and how are people moving forward?

MG: I saw two things. One is an incredible resilience. I read in the news, and I see in social media that this is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s War. And I don’t believe that’s true. I think any prime minister would be reacting the way that he’s reacting. The Israeli public wants their hostages back, and they want Hamas gone. There are plenty who want peace. There are plenty who want the fighting to end, and they understand that it’s tough. They know Israel has to fight back. There’s an anger, I think. But also they’re in the middle of a war. And, there’s this overwhelming resolve, like, “We’re going to finish Hamas.” But, there’s also the north, where Hezbollah is threatening, and so they’re just trying to stay strong. 

Everybody has a brother, a sister, a daughter, a husband, a father who’s fighting, so the country can’t even begin to deal with all the chaos that’s happening. There are 7,000 severely injured Israelis from the Oct. 7 attack. There are 200,000 displaced Israelis because of Hezbollah and the Gaza envelope being evacuated. The PTSD, the trauma and the anxiety are not being dealt with because they can’t yet be dealt with. It’s also like time has stood still there. They were so focused on that moment, and yet they are trying to live their lives on some level. So, I don’t know that there’s a lot of moving forward. They’re trying to get through each day. 

What do you want the Dartmouth community to know about your experience in Israel?

MG: For me, it was good to go there. It felt like a Jewish hug. It was a week of not dealing with antisemitism. There’s this feeling in America, this overwhelming rise in antisemitism. But, I believe the people of Israel want peace. They want to live in security. They want to live in safety. Hamas has said this was a test run, and that they will do this again. That obviously can’t happen. I would say to the general Dartmouth community that you might not like the government of Israel, but the overwhelming majority of the people living there do want peace. But they cannot have peace with Hamas. It’s impossible. 

I would also encourage people to go to Israel. I know it’s scary. It looks scary on the news. I was there. I felt safe. And I would bring that message back. Don’t get all your info from social media. There’s a lot of misinformation. There’s a lot of hatred. There are a lot of buzzwords being thrown out there.

When do you think that you will lead another Birthright trip for Dartmouth students? Do you expect the future of the program to look similar to how it did before Oct. 7, or with significant alterations?

MG: Dartmouth Chabad has traditionally done Birthright over winter break. So, we’re definitely going to do a trip in December. I don’t know if we can pull one off for the summer. Summer in general is a hard time only because of the D plan. It’s going to be a different trip. Even the groups that are going right now can’t go north because of Hezbollah. They’re going south, but they’re not going near the Gaza Strip.

Is there anything in particular the Dartmouth community can do to help the communities you visited in Israel?

MG: We’re bringing a survivor from the Oct. 7 massacre who was at the Nova festival on Feb. 20. I would say to the Dartmouth community to come out and listen to what this person has to say. Just engage, hear their story and their testimony. But, if somebody wants to get involved, they should certainly reach out to either myself or Hillel Rabbi Seth Linfield. Students are always doing things, and there are a lot of different ways to get involved. We’ll be doing a Challah bake later in the term to raise money for something that we will decide.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.