Let’s play a game. If you were raised anywhere in the nation other than the Northeast or Florida, make a list of all of the Jewish people you’ve ever met. If it’s fewer than five, I win. If it’s more five, you win, and I will personally congratulate you.
Ever since the scarce population of Jewish people made their way over to the United States, they have been prominently settled in the Northeastern region of the nation, and in Florida. The lack of Jewish mobility across the rest of the nation inhibits the citizens of those parts to meet and learn about the Jewish religion and culture, which inevitably led to widespread ignorance. As a result, areas such as the Southeast and the Midwest are homogeneously Christian and have rarely had the opportunity to interact with Jewish individuals. Sadly, there is a widespread ignorance that is unnerving and is consequently offensive.
As a Jew born and raised in New Jersey, I was valued and accepted by those who surrounded me. Five of my closest friends were Jewish; I attended a synagogue in my hometown with thousands of members, received days off of public school for Jewish holidays; and I encountered other Jews on a regular basis. I never had to think twice about my identity, and although I was a minority, it rarely ever seemed drastic. My friends who did not practice Judaism were perfectly kind to me and did not even consider treating me any differently because of my religion. That wasn’t how we lived. It wasn’t until I moved to Clemson, S.C. that my perceptions of how others viewed me changed forever.
When I chose to attend Clemson University, my peers and elders warned me time after time that it was at the heart of the Bible Belt. I couldn’t understand why they seemed so concerned that my kindhearted, open, and friendly self would have trouble adapting to a new culture. My strong-willed naivety ignored the doubts of those around me, and I was devoted to immersing myself into the culture of the Deep South.
Unsurprisingly, my experience was disheartening. If there weren’t Bibles shoved in my face, I had to listen to speech after speech on how I had to be saved and find my way to Jesus Christ. When this first began to occur, I politely told whoever approached me that I’m Jewish, and the reactions I received were shocking. They ranged from speechlessness to blatant ignorance. Most students I met had never met a Jewish person before, exclaiming, “Hey, you’re a Jew? I’ve never met one of those before!” I would often have to elaborate on what Judaism is, and explain that just because I do not have a big nose, I can still be Jewish. I even dated a guy who told me how worried he was for me as a Jew, because he knew I would be going to hell. A friend of mine was also Jewish, and refused to tell any of his non-Jewish friends about his religious affiliation. Needless to say, I was horrified. The looks I received made me feel sick, and to avoid humiliation, I stopped telling people that I was Jewish.
I was trapped in a state of isolation and felt like an outsider, so I got out. After two years of hiding my identity, I mustered up the courage to leave Clemson University and transfer to North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C. Located right in the center of a metropolitan area, Raleigh offered me a great education, a diverse student body, and a Jewish community that welcomed me with open arms. I no longer hide my identity as a Jewish citizen and haven’t experienced any ignorance or discrimination thus far. I did not lose all faith in humanity, yet there is a lot of room for it to be restored.
In light of my experiences, I will share some advice with both Jewish citizens in the Southeast and the rest of the Southern population.
To the Jews —
I get it. I have lived through the discomfort, uneasiness, and loneliness that comes with having a Jewish identity in the South, and I encourage you to hold on to your faith and your pride. Although we are a small group of people, we have overcome incredible obstacles for centuries. This should be a piece of cake! Never forget who you are as a Jew and where you came from, because many of our ancestors have left magnificent legacies behind. It may seem easy to hide or put down your Jewish identity, but you should be proud. What makes you different makes you beautiful, and the rest of the world deserves to see the unique gifts and talents that your soul has to offer. Try to understand that hateful or offensive remarks about Judaism stem from ignorance, which is merely a lack of knowledge. Many people in the world are not educated about Judaism and have never met any Jews, so they have no way of knowing the wonderful people that we truly are. Open your hearts to them, and maybe they will open theirs to you.
To the non-Jews —
I have one request from all of you. Take five minutes out of your day and look up Judaism on Google. Whether you agree or disagree with your findings, just take that small portion of time to educate yourself on who we are. Even if only one of you does, you can save a Jewish person from feeling the discomfort and isolation that I experienced. It only takes one individual to change the world, and that change can start with just a hint of knowledge. I urge you to find it in your hearts to pause before you react to those who are different than you, and to try your best to be open with us, even if you are not accepting. To those who have shown me acceptance, I thank you profusely. You’ve made an everlasting impact on me. As a Jew I can promise you that all I want is to feel like I belong and that I am appreciated, as I’m sure many other minorities feel too. Be the change.
As I lay here starving on this Yom Kippur, I can reflect on the past and what I have endured in the last few years. I used to feel ashamed about my religion because of how ostracized I felt, yet now my mindset has changed. I could not be more proud to be a little Jew in a big pond, regardless of what hardships I may go through later on. My heart goes out to those who have experienced the distress that I did, and I hope that my voice has been loud and clear in this message. Religion is about finding a community that provides faith, love, and support. Why not share that with others? Most religions teach us that we are all citizens of this Earth who are worthy of both acceptance and love. It’s time to practice what we preach.