As a Jew, living in rural Virginia, I often ask myself, “How does living in a certain area reflect on one’s Judaism?” I decided to ask 8 people from 8 different cities and towns across America how Judaism differs for them based on where they live and how it affects them.
“NYC has a really large Jewish population so there are lots of places to go to explore your identity such as museums and in boroughs. Brooklyn and Manhattan, as well as Queens, have lots of Jewish gatherings that you can go to. It’s very engaging for the entire Jewish community, especially within my region and the Manhattan region. There’s a lot of Jewish geography to connect upon and lots of people know each other through other people!” —Rachel Wolk, Big Apple
Rachel’s passion for engaging in the Jewish community shines through within this statement. As Rachel explains, one key way to get involved in Judaism is by going to Jewish events and immersing yourself in the community.
“It definitely helps me participate more in my religion because everyone here is Jewish! I definitely like it a lot!” —Sofie Vinick, Northern Region East: DC
Sofie’s desire to stay involved and be active is inspiring! By involving yourself in Jewish organizations, such as BBYO, your enthusiasm for Judaism can grow exponentially.
“I feel like it’s a bit of both good and bad. I now live in a Jewish neighborhood and it feels really good, but it’s sometimes scary going to temple or wearing my Jewish star around. There’s a good community here but it can also be challenging being Jewish here sometimes.” —Zoe Green-Mizel, Pacific Western: Los Angeles
Zoe points out a key narrative happening in the United States, the fear of being vocally Jewish. Although hate has risen, our passion should not fade and be demolished.
“Growing up in Charlotte I usually had zero to two other Jews in my class. There was practically no Holocaust education in school besides stating how many Jews died and often my teachers got the number wrong. About every other year in World History, we would have a unit on Christianity, but we only had one Judaism unit and that was just the lead up to the Christianity unit. Fortunately, we have the JCC here in Charlotte, so there was a place to be Jewish. In middle school, people called me a grinch because I didn’t like Christmas. But I had my reasons: months of being left out and excluded. It surrounds you, you see it, hear it, and live it nonstop, it gets tiring. I try not to share my opinion but when you're the only one not in a Christmas sweater during holiday spirit week you get singled out pretty quickly. Often, on the bus in elementary and middle school people would draw swastikas. I remember in seventh grade almost every day there was a Jew joke. Most often about our noses, other times about orthodox culture, the Holocaust, traditions, and more. Charlotte though, compared to other places is still a good place to be Jewish. At least we were 1-2 percent of the population.” —Ivy Daith, Eastern: North Carolina
Ivy’s words ring true to the point of bigotry and a lack of education happening in the county. Her examples point to the drastic need for more education and learning about Jewish culture and history throughout the world.
“I am originally from San Francisco. When I lived there being Jewish wasn’t something that was as unusual as it is in the south. Sure, some people didn’t know what it meant, but overall I felt safe and accepted. When we moved to Asheville, the dynamic shifted. Being Jewish in the south means that I’m always scared of someone finding out that I’m a Jew. It means that I’m afraid that someone will hurt me or my family just because of my religion. So, in terms of safety and being comfortable sharing who I am, being Jewish in the south is not easy. On the other side of this, however, being Jewish in the south has given me a stronger connection to my Judaism. In San Francisco, I had Jewish friends at school, and there were multiple temples to go to. I didn’t often think twice about practicing Judaism. Here, it’s so important to have a strong connection with other Jews, because there are so few of us. This is what BBYO has provided for me; a safe space for a close Jewish community. I feel a deeper connection to my Jewish identity living in the south than in California, even though I do fear for my safety and that of my family.” —Montana Gura, Eastern: Asheville
Montana’s words hint at the heartstrings. Even though living in an area with fewer Jews is less comforting than being surrounded by Jews, it increases the connection to Judaism so that it can be a big part and contribution to your personality.
“Living in the Midwest contributes to my Jewish identity by allowing me to become close with the other Jews who live in nearby neighborhoods and suburbs. I feel like I have been able to meet so many bright faces that some people do not get to experience. Sometimes people make jokes about being Jewish, but I am very thankful that I have a lot of supportive friends that I have met through a variety of events.” —Grayson Abadallah, Great Midwest: Chicago
Grayson’s community of supportive friends allows him to be proud of his Judaism. We should learn from Grayson that surrounding yourself with good people is the key to success.
“Living in Damascus has made me realize that I have to be careful what I say about my Jewish identity. With most of my high school's population having other religions it’s hard to fit in. There were bible study and YFC (Youth for Christ) at my high school and a lot of my friends did it, but it just wasn’t for me because I’m Jewish. They never discriminated against me, but I knew I wouldn’t fit in. When I was in third grade I remember at a holiday concert that when it was time to sing the dreidel song some of the older boys booed. They said, ‘We don’t care about Jews.’ I couldn’t fathom the hate at the time but now it hurts me. Overall living in Damascus has been great, just not when being Jewish is brought up.” —Jordan Lynch, Northern Region East: DC
Jordan’s emotions and her pain hint at an issue deeper than Judaism, when people of different cultures are not accepted for who they are and what they believe in. There has to be a united front to address and combat the issue. We need allies, no one can do everything alone, and Jordan’s words must be the motivation to take a stand.
“In north Dallas, there are a lot of Jews. I live in the Eruv, so I see a lot of Jewish people and feel very much like I’m in a community full of Jews and people who are friends to Jews. On a more city-wide level, our city council has multiple Jewish council members and even has a city wide #jewishandproud day. In Texas, I feel that Jews are respected and I am free to live as a Jew because of our national representation. Many of our legislators, including Ted Cruz (R) and Collin Alred (D), are big supporters of Israel. There are also big Hillels and Chabads at all the big universities!” —Steven Mendelson, North Texas Oklahoma: Dallas
Steven highlights all the amazing representation in his city from his community to his local level to statewide representation! He also mentions the amazing Jewish life throughout communities and universities. It's great to see that Jewish allies are there in his state, regardless of the political party. Steven shows how having a community of Jews and Jewish allies is a key to success.
Although these stories may differ in zip codes and ideas, each Jewish teen’s determination, passion, identity, and ability to stay strong and be proud is the same. Thank you to everyone who participated and shared their stories. Continue to speak up and stand out. No matter where you live, continue to be proud of your Judaism!
Ivy Seligman is a BBG from Northern Region East: Northern Virginia Council. She is an active member of her school's debate team and loves reality TV.
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