I am Jewish. I have attended secular schools of the public and private variety, Modern Orthodox Jewish Day Schools, and a Pluralistic Jewish Day School. One type of school I've never attended is a Christian school.
I just started my freshman year at a Presbyterian college in North Texas. I know, cowboy vibes are very much present in that statement. Most of my readers are from big cities, like New York, Dallas and Houston. It's probably hard for my audience to picture what it's like to be a Jew in attendance at a Christian school with less than 1,300 people on campus. Well, let me paint it for you.
It's a tremendous challenge — it truly is. The total Jewish student body population is roughly 1%; a bit less than that, actually. As someone who has spent her youth studying the works of great Jewish minds (in Hebrew!) as a part of her core education, I have to say that coming here was (and is still) a great culture shock.
I was able to spot approximately three Jews on campus; and wouldn't you guess — I already knew all of them from previous Jewish organizations or schools. So, let's sum this up: no new Jews on campus that I can identify, no strong Jewish presence, and that doesn't even begin to mention the element of Christianity on campus.
My orientation at this college entailed a lot of (Christian) prayer and programs run by Christian clergy. Additionally, an optional Christian service was provided on the first Sunday I was in attendance. Most everyone here wears a cross around their necks, mentions Jesus in side conversation, and writes poetry about the Bible. Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but the truth is, it made me feel isolated. It still makes me feel isolated.
During one of the first orientation programs we had, the leader of the program had the entire freshman class congregate in a lecture hall (yes, it really is that small). He then asked the audience to stand up if he said an identity that they could relate to. He first said "all Catholics, please stand up", and went forth naming the different sects of Christianity, each one getting a bigger cheer from the audience than the last. And before he concluded, he said "all non-Christians, please stand up" (or something along those lines). Guess who stood up in that crowded auditorium after seeing the mass amounts of Christian pride demonstrated? Me. And a handful of other people. A handful. And by a handful, I mean less than ten. I felt a sudden course of humiliation run through me, my heart beating fast and my cheeks turning red. But I kept standing, because Shema Israel Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.
That was the first time in a very long time that I was reminded of something: I am distinctly and solely Jewish. I use these two words to describe my Judaism in that moment because I was markedly Jewish and alone in that Jewishness. Yes, I know the spiel: all Jews are a community, even if separated geographically. But do you know how hard it is to be the Last Jew Standing? To look around and be alone in your identity? It's hard. It's really hard.
Yesterday, a girl in class publicly called my literature professor a “grammar-Nazi”, which warranted some amusement from classmates. I was reviled by this, and shocked that no one else was demonstrating the same level of outward disgust (except, maybe, my wonderful boyfriend who is an avid Jew supporter). And I remembered something: “Oh yeah, I’m shocked, because we don’t say that kind of thing in Jewish Day School, because we’re all the descendents of Holocaust survivors”. And it again, hit me. In a way more visceral than it does every day: I am distinctly and solely Jewish.
I’ve been wearing a Magen David lately, and I can’t shake the feeling of other people’s stares. As if their eyes are burning David’s shield into my chest, each point of the star sinking deeper into my skin and reminding me of David’s great struggles, his triumphs and his failures.
I actually just got off of FaceTime with a Jewish friend of mine who is going to school at NYU, and I had this horrendous pit in my stomach: jealousy. He told me that his school had over 6,000 Jews, and he even stopped in the street to hug a Jewish friend he had run into while we were talking. I felt this nostalgia for New York City; and not even that, a nostalgia for Jews. For being Jewish and not being alone. I still carry that jealousy with me, and I probably will, every day. But part of being a Jew is learning how to be a Jew in isolation. Part of being a Jew is learning how to be distinctly and solely Jewish. At least to me.
It’s hard, but there is good in being one of the few. I am trying to start a chapter of Hillel here with some Jewish friends, and maybe an Israeli Culture club with my boyfriend. I get to be a pioneer. It’s beautiful, but it’s kind of tragically beautiful, you know?
I was also selected as one of fifteen Jewish teenagers who submitted essays to the Kaplun Foundation to be a member of the Kaplun Foundation Teen Philanthropy Board: a group of Jewish teenage leaders who will congregate in Manhattan in November and will use allocated money to benefit a social justice organization of our choosing. It is a great honor to be one of the few, in this case.
My Judaism still blossoms, even when the rain does not fall; I have enough water stored in me from my years at Akiba, Yavneh, and other Jewish institutions (and friends) to last a lifetime, thank Hashem. I leave you with what I began: I am Jewish.
Shema Israel Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.
(P.S.: This is about my experiences as a Jew and is not intended to reflect any malice towards those of the Christian faith).