This past summer, I worked in a camp attended by many public school students from the tri-state area. On hearing a camper say that she lives in Teaneck, I asked her which shul she lives near as a way of identifying which area of Teaneck she is from. Looking at me strangely, she said, “I don’t know, but I live two blocks away from Teaneck High.” Had this camper been a part of the close-knit Orthodox community in Teaneck, she would have been aware of the shul that is just around the block from her, and of the Jewish community members living all around her. She had lived in Teaneck for years, but was shockingly unaware of its vibrant Jewish community.
The Jewish community of Teaneck, and the Jewish communities that scatter the tri-state area, are often referred to as “bubbles.” There is much value to the “bubble” because it gives its members the opportunity to live in an area with others who share similar values and work together to accomplish similar goals. These insular communities provide their youth with Jewish education and Jewish life, ensuring that the vast majority of their children will be instilled with a sturdy foundation for their future lives as practicing Jews.
Within these bubbles, however, there are Jewish students who are being neglected. A large population of Jewish students who attend public schools are unaffiliated with any of the Jewish institutions in their midst. As illustrated by the above story, after years of attending Teaneck High, a student was unaware of the community of Jews living in her backyard.
I write this article to expose a serious challenge that lies before our very eyes. Day in and day out, the population of Jews attending public schools feels what it means to be different from those around them. Many Jews residing in the tri-state area, however, have never asked their neighbors what it is like to be a Jewish student attending a public school. On a daily basis, many of these students ask themselves, “Why do I choose to be different from my classmates?” They question their identities regularly, and many Jews living in the same communities as these students have neglected to address their instabilities.
The question, “Why do I choose to be different?,” is welcomed in America, because, as a country, America embraces difference and values the variety of people forming her population. Natan Sharansky, who knew the consequences of a country that chose to drown out any trace of difference, had great respect for the American value of accepting difference. In his book Defending Identity, he writes, “In America, particular identities co-exist alongside one another, sometimes overlapping or intercrossing and sometimes distinct from each other. But the social framework does not require that differences be smoothed away.”[i] America has opened its arms to all cultural and religious backgrounds, including its population of American Jewry. It is a novelty in Jewish history that Jews are able to wear a kippah without cringing in fear, and can leave work early on Friday without losing their jobs. Jews merely sixty years ago would be stunned by the ease with which Jews in America are able to openly practice their Judaism.
America may embrace people of different backgrounds, but this does not exclude a person’s feeling of being different. Jews recognize that they follow a different set of laws than the masses. When one has recognition of this difference, a feeling of separateness naturally results. This feeling of being different, however, is rarely felt by the yeshivah student who is constantly surrounded by people who share the same values, goals, and traditions. This comfort of sameness that the yeshivah student feels on a regular basis stands in stark contrast to the feelings of many Jewish students attending public schools. In their public schools, these Jewish students spend every school day as the “other,” and the feeling of being different pervades their lives on a daily basis. Having this constant feeling of otherness is a challenge facing a large portion of Jewish teenagers in the New York area.
To give a more personal portrayal of the life of the Jewish public school student in the tri-state area, I asked a few students to describe their experiences. A student at Horace Greeley High School, a public school in upstate New York, said, “Because I identify myself as Modern Orthodox, a lot of people find that as an easy way to make fun of me.” This student felt that being the “other” is invasive to her social life. Because her differences are acknowledged by others, she is made aware of her otherness on a regular basis.
This feeling of otherness is dangerously strong when it is imposed upon the Jewish public school student. On a late night at an NCSY regional convention, a roomful of public high school girls from the New York area shared some of the recent events in their lives. Three out of the six girls in the room recalled that fellow classmates had recently thrown coins at them, and then told them to be good Jews and pick up the free money.
Similarly, a student at James Caldwell High School, a public school in New Jersey, said, “About a month ago, my friend asked me if I heard about the giant swastika that someone spray-painted on the side of the school. When I hear things like this, which thankfully is infrequent, I get annoyed and angry. It’s weird to think that I’m in the same school with other kids who could be so cruel.” It seems that when a child is singled out as the “other,” it causes the child to have an overwhelming awareness that he or she is different from those around them. The two students quoted here represent many Jewish public school students in the New York area who face similar challenges.
Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks delineates the inevitability of the Jew’s feeling of ‘otherness’ in his book Dignity of Difference: “Religion is about identity, and identity excludes. For every ‘we’ there is a ‘them,’ and the people not like us. There are kin and non-kin, friends and strangers, brothers and others, and without these boundaries it is questionable whether we would have an identity at all.”[ii] Rabbi Sacks explains that having an awareness of one’s own difference is essential to the religious experience. Recognizing the divide between those who share one’s own values and those who do not is part of the process of creating one’s own religious identity. In fact, the same James Caldwell High School student said, “I’m proud to be one of the few Jews in my school, and I love when my friends at lunch ask me all sorts of questions about Judaism. I try to teach my friends more about what it’s like to not go to church on Sundays. I try to explain to them what it’s like to not be able to text or use my phone on Saturdays.” The constant feeling of difference can be a positive way for Jewish teenagers to analyze their own values. The awareness of their otherness can lead to a passion and desire to learn about their personal identity. While feeling different is important, being forced to feel different on a daily basis, however, becomes a major challenge for the Jewish public school student.
Those living amongst the insular Jewish communities of the tri-state area must not ignore the challenges of Jewish public school students. They stand on thin ice, as they spend one day after the next questioning their identity because of their natural feeling of being different. What can be done by the community to attend to their challenges?
To understand how to address the needs of a person who feels like the “other,” it helps to analyze the biblical emblem of the “other.” Avraham Avinu knew that monotheism is truth, despite the idol worshippers practicing in his presence. In Be-Reshit Rabbah, Hazal explain that Avraham was given the title of ‘Ivri’ because he stood as an individual in his beliefs. The Midrash writes that he stood me-ever ehad, on one side, and the rest of the world stood on the other side, with their opposing religious beliefs.[iii] Because Avraham’s beliefs differed so strongly from the beliefs of the rest of the world, he separated himself and became a nomad.
In his book Abraham’s Journey, Rav Soloveitchik explains that in the berit bein ha-betarim, Avraham was informed that he would be the father of a nation. The role that Avraham had adopted as the lonely nomad went against his natural inclination to be a social being. His newly prescribed mission to father the Jewish people finally opened up the opportunity for Avraham to have the communal aspect of the religious experience. Through the berit bein ha-betarim, Hashem sent Avraham the message that the Jew is meant to practice his Judaism within a community.[iv]
Rav Soloveitchik further delineates the conflict that Avraham experienced between separating himself to be the nomad, and his natural inclination to be a social being. On the one hand, Avraham became a wanderer because the people surrounding him did not share his beliefs. On this, the Rav writes that Avraham “understood that in order to achieve, he must choose loneliness.”[v] On the other hand, the Rav points out that Avraham recognized that it is human nature to desire a connection with people. The conflict is described as follows: “Two wills were locked in a struggle: the will to move on, to flee, to wander, to forget, to renounce- and the will to stay, to strike roots, to form relationships, to create a fellowship, to share with a community the deepest secrets of one’s existential experience.”[vi] A Avraham knew that he resented the practices of the people living amongst him. Simultaneously, though, he felt a desire to be a social being. It is a basic aspect of human nature to circumvent becoming the other and, instead, form relationships with those in your presence. In the berit bein ha-betarim, the Rav posits that Avraham was promised that he too will be given the opportunity to create a community of his own. Avraham “could no longer renounce his social will and the yearning for we-ness.” In response to his natural desire for community, Hashem promised Avraham a child, so that he could create “deep mutual understanding, a meeting of minds and hearts, and a feeling of togetherness that ties every thread of the personality into such a relationship.”[vii]
A student at Horace Greeley High School voiced a tension reminiscent of Avraham’s conflict when caught between the desire to separate and the desire to be a part of a community: “I think part of being an Orthodox Jew in public school is to understand the balance between explaining your life to everyone, and just understanding that most people will be naïve, and as long as they aren’t intentionally mean, sometimes you just have to keep smiling.” This Jewish public school student deeply wishes to identify with a community that understands her values and her Jewish lifestyle. She wishes to explain her life to everyone, but she realizes that most people will not understand her. Because she has not found a community of people within her immediate surroundings that identifies with her lifestyle, she has become hesitant when expressing her religious beliefs. This student’s challenge represents the challenge of many Jewish public students who desire the presence of others who will, as the Rav said, address their “yearning for we-ness.”
The struggle that Jewish public school students endure is not ideal. Their strength is praiseworthy, but their situation is frightening. Feeling different is important, but without the security of a Jewish community, it is nearly impossible to uphold one’s own values. For the Jews to maintain their “otherness,” they must be able to identify regularly with a larger group. Otherwise, it is impossible to stand strong and not compromise their values.
The Jewish communities of the tri-state area have been faced with a challenge. There are students who are wandering, who are lonely, and who need to identify with others who share their values. These students are often surrounded by strong Jewish communities, but these communities often fail to break down the walls that stand between them and these students. Maybe the change that must take effect is as small as announcing page numbers in shuls in order to create a more comfortable and welcoming environment; perhaps it is as large as inviting Jewish public school students to some of the yeshivah day school events. Either way, these students are in danger of abandoning their Jewish identities because they lack a community. To truly implement change, communities must not only break down the walls that stand between them and the public school students, but they must go as far as to open the doors and welcome them in.
Zahava Rothschild is junior at SCW majoring in Jewish Education and English Literature, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.
[i] Natan Sharansky, Defending Identity (Philadelphia, PA: PublicAffairs, 2008), 108.
[ii] Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference (London and New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2002), 46.
[iii] Be-Reshit Rabbah 42:8.
[iv] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Abraham’s Journey (New York, NY: Toras HoRav Foundation, 2008), 84-89.
[v] Ibid., 85.
[vi] Ibid., 86.
[vii] Ibid., 85.