Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > Charedi Isolationism > The October 7th Cry: “I Am a Jew”

The October 7th Cry: “I Am a Jew”

The Simchas Torah massacre has awakened a new return to Judaism, echoing Herzl's description in "The Menorah." We need to join this awakening and paint Israel in the Jewish colors of its foundations.

Tevet 5784, December 2023

On the last day of 1897, just a few months after the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Theodor Herzl’s The Menorah saw the light on the pages of Die Welt. In a clearly autobiographical description, Herzl writes of a man, an assimilated Jew who had “long ceased to trouble his head about his Jewish origin or the faith of his fathers,” yet was awakened to return to his Jewish roots “when the age-old hatred reasserted itself under a fashionable slogan.” Feeling the anguish of his soul “like one great bleeding wound,” his growing and fervent love for Judaism grew into a clear idea that he began to voice: “The thought that there was only one way out of this Jewish suffering — namely, to return to Judaism.”

I believe that we are once again living in a The Menorah moment, a Herzlian time that calls us to return to Judaism in the spirit of the Hasmoneans

Determined to give his children a Jewish education, he acquired a menorah and began to kindle the Hanukkah lights, telling his children about the origin of the holiday: “the miracle of the little lamp which had burned so much longer than expected, as well as the story of the return from the Babylonian exile, of the Second Temple, of the Maccabees.” The days of Hanukkah became a time of hope and inspiration until the final, eighth day came:

A great radiance shone forth from the menorah. The eyes of the children sparkled. For our friend, the occasion became a parable for the awakening of a whole nation. First one candle — it is still dark and the solitary light looks gloomy. Then it finds a companion, then another, and yet another. The darkness must retreat. The young and the poor are the first to see the light. Then the others join in, all those who love justice, truth, liberty, progress, humanity and beauty. When all the candles are ablaze everyone must stop in amazement and rejoice at what has been wrought. And no office is more blessed than that of a servant of this light.[1]

Some Jews, certainly those of Charedi persuasion, might be more familiar with Herzl’s 1893 thoughts (as noted in his diary entries) about the mass conversion of Austrian Jews to Catholicism as a solution to the “Jewish problem” than the return to Judaism articulated in The Menorah. Yet, it was the latter sentiment that won the day. Though without the same passion, Herzl expresses the same ideas in his 1896 pamphlet The Jewish State. “We might perhaps be able to merge ourselves entirely into surrounding races,” he wrote, “if these were to leave us in peace for a period of two generations.” It was clear to Herzl, however, that the “surrounding races” would not leave the Jews in peace and that this would ultimately work to our benefit: “[W]hether we like it or not, we are now, and shall henceforth remain, a historic group with unmistakable characteristics common to us all.[2]

“Therefore,” he writes at the end of the pamphlet, “I believe that a wondrous generation of Jews will spring into existence. The Maccabeans will rise again.”

I begin with the quote from The Menorah because it has become remarkably contemporary. I believe we are once again living in a “The Menorah” moment, a Herzlian time that calls us to return to Judaism in the spirit of the Hasmoneans.


Rabbi Avraham Eliyahu Kaplan, zt”l, was an outstanding figure who headed the Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin and was on a meteoric track of rabbinic leadership cut short by his untimely death in 1924. In 1919, he eulogized Herzl with the following words: “He did not teach us the Torah of Moshe; he did not teach us Halacha and Aggadah; and he did not teach us Jewish wisdom and mussar – for he was never taught them. He taught us two words, which until he arrived, we did not dare and could not speak: ivri anochi! – I am a Jew.”

Like the Hasmoneans, who were not awakened to fight against the Seleucid Greeks until harsh decrees were enacted against Judaism, Herzl’s awakening drew from the explicit animosity targeted against the Jews of Europe. The Dreyfus affair, in which a Jewish officer in the French army was falsely accused of treason against an antisemitic backdrop, was the straw that broke the back of Herzl’s hope for an assimilationist solution to the “Jewish problem.” The return to Judaism that he articulated in The Menorah and sook to realize in Zionism – the cry of “I am a Jew” that stretched beyond the private and into the political arena – was born out of crisis.

Yet, the labor of Teshuvah, returning to Judaism, is no light matter. Herzl himself warned of the foreign elements that had become embedded into the Jewish camp and could not be integrated into a Jewish framework. These mindsets, values, and cultural elements were part and parcel of the Zionist movement Herzl founded and even of the Jewish state it established (much as they remained entrenched in the Hasmonean kingdom and ultimately led to its demise). The labor of cleansing and clarification – the return to an authentic Judaism in the public and political space – remained incomplete. A cursory glance at the face of the Jewish State in the few months preceding October 7 is sufficient to demonstrate the point.

The horrors of Simchas Torah that brought us back to Kishinev and Babi Yar, alongside the rampant antisemitism that has sent shock waves throughout the Jewish world, have brought about a renewed return to Judaism and rekindled a passionate call of “I am a Jew!”

Today, after seventy-five years of statehood, we are once again at a moment of awakening – a moment like nothing we knew. The horrors of Simchas Torah that brought us back to Kishinev and Babi Yar, alongside the rampant antisemitism that has sent shock waves throughout the Jewish world, have brought about a renewed return to Judaism and rekindled a passionate call of “I am a Jew!” Author and journalist Omer Barak posted that “as part of my reckoning and beliefs I once held and today think differently, two words come to mind that I had previously refused to say: ani yehudi! – I am a Jew.” Hanin Majadli, a regular contributor to Haaretz, wrote that due to several factors, Israelis have been awaked “to change their position, to see reality with a new clarity, and to understand they are Jewish, first and foremost, and there is thus no choice but to move right.” I deeply hope she is right.

Overseas, too, awakenings are taking place. Elliot Cosgrove, a Conservative rabbi and prominent Jewish-American voice, claimed that it is time to end the unfortunate process of Jewish weakening, which he labeled “Marranos in reverse”: “Unlike the Marranos of old, who converted to Catholicism but secretly remained faithful to Judaism, American Jews have for decades been comfortable in their Jewish exterior but removed from the actual practice of religion or deep engagement with their culture.”

Surveys carried out among Chabad houses across the United States revealed a spike in attendance at prayers and events, alongside a dramatic upturn in fulfillment of Jewish custom – lighting Shabbat candles, separating Challah, and wearing overtly Jewish jewelry and adornments (of 211 respondents, 98% noted an uptick in observing Jewish customs). The hugely attended Washington rally, which managed to bring together all denominations of American Jewry, also testifies to the greatness of the hour.

These are moving phenomena. They are a source of hope.

No less moving is the Charedi awakening.


The national trauma was keenly felt even on Charedi flesh; even we, Charedi Jews, are rising to the cause and sharing the awakening of the entire nation.

Just yesterday (the sixth day of Hanukkah), I made the trek to an air force base in Haifa to deliver a shiur to Charedi soldiers who recently joined the IDF with Shlav Bet, an army initiative that allows a short regular service and quick entry into meaningful reserve duty. It was an inspiring visit, which reminded me of some other lines in Rabbi Kaplan’s obituary concerning the cry of “I am a Jew”:

Indeed, in the Beis Midrash we could always say the cry. We could even write and read it in our books and articles, in our newspapers and pamphlets; we could declare ourselves a nation wherever we might want, except for one place – the place where all the nations of the world are represented: in global politics!

Even after the state was established, Charedi Judaism feared, with strong justification, the harmful elements that were integrated into the political realization of the Jewish nation. Not everyone shared Herzl’s vision of a return to Judaism; for other leaders, Zionism was a vehicle for an escape from Judaism. Parts of the movement and the state were infected with militant secularism that Charedim, in fairness, could not partner with.

The concern dictated an isolationist approach, not only from foreign values and cultural baggage but even from the renewed call of “I am a Jew!” In the Charedi space, the cry and its attendant actions remained within the Beis Midrash and its immediate vicinity. Building and advancing the political aspects of Judaism was left to the rest of the nation.

Today, after seventy-five years of growth and prosperity, Charedi Judaism is experiencing a renewed call to the flag of “I am a Jew!” Jewish society in twenty-first-century Israel is quite unlike that of yesteryear, and Charedi society, in tandem, has grown strong and gained confidence. This new situation allows for a reevaluation of Charedi contribution to the public sphere, state institutions, the different branches of government, and even the IDF.

While maintaining our foundational values – Torah and Mitzvos, ensuring the meticulous upkeep of halacha, adhering to the spirit of community, and distancing ourselves from all that is evil and obscene – our entry into the public space can provide the Jewish state with a renewed energy and ensure (to the degree we can) that our reality will not experience the bitter fate of the Hasmonean kingdom.

I was party to this yesterday in Haifa, speaking before 140 uniformed Haredim, the fifth or sixth of similar cohorts since the onset of the war. Even when coupled with related phenomena – operation rooms, ZAKA volunteers, agricultural assistance, and so on – the observer might consider this small. Statistically, it is a modest awakening. Yet, it is another candle that joins the eternal Jewish flame and carries huge potential for our collective future.

The candle we light today is not the first of the eight candles. Perhaps the day draws closer, to cite Herzl again, “When all the candles are ablaze, everyone must stop in amazement and rejoice at what has been wrought.”

“And no office is more blessed than that of a servant of this light.”


[1] The translation is taken from the Herzl Institute: A previous English version was published in The Menorah Journal in 1915 and was reprinted by the New York Times on December 25, 1978.

[2] Theodor Herzl, The Jewish State, translated from German by Sylvie D’Avigdor (American Zionist Emergency Council, 1946).

3 thoughts on “The October 7th Cry: “I Am a Jew”

  • Rav Pfeffer hits the proverbial nail on the head – we are indeed living in historic times with Hirhurei Teshuvah occurring in all segments of Am Yisrael

  • It is important to remember that Herzl’s dream took half a century to come to fruition. Similarly, as Rav Tzoddok HaCohen noted in the very first chapter of Tzidkat HaTzaddik, the original exuberant leap must be followed by a consistent and lengthy period of continued adoption.

    We can only hope that the process will move forward.

    You are the second Hareidi (lite) Rabbi to quote Rabbi Cosgrove, a thoughtful, powerful, (dying), and unique voice in the Conservative movement.

  • The big national choice will be trust in HaShem over trust in America. If Israel’s top officials, in particular, make the right choice, that will be a very positive sign.

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