As a community, we cannot continue to sit by, failing to realize that being different is okay.
Growing up, I was raised in a Jewish household.
Being a participant in the Jewish faith was not something I was particularly interested in or enjoyed doing as a child. My father forced me to attend Sunday school, which was a class on Sundays at my temple, where I learned about Jewish history and the Torah. Later, in addition to Sunday school, I was required to attend Monday school to learn to speak Hebrew in preparation for my Bar Mitzvah.
As I matured, I didn’t consider being a Jew an integral part of me and never gave it much thought. But in high school it was all I ever thought about.
Before I enrolled at Malvern, I was completely unaware that a certain characteristic about myself would result in being isolated and feeling insignificant. I never felt I had to question who I was– a self-confident kid who never feared approaching someone and striking up a conversation or presenting in front of an audience.
It wasn’t until high school I felt everything changed for me.
It became evident quickly that I was an outsider. For starters, one of the first questions I was asked by teachers, students, or part of some icebreaker activity was, “What parish do you belong to?”
This question is harmless enough, and I knew no one had any malintent in assuming I was Catholic. However, I can remember being forced to decide if I should lie, or subject myself to the typical follow up question: “If you’re Jewish, then what are you doing at a Catholic school?”
The second half of that question is one that has stuck with me for a long time and one that I frequently asked myself during my time here at Malvern. “What are you doing at a Catholic school?”
In the beginning, the embarrassment was the worst part. During the class prayer, I would stand awkwardly with my hands at my sides, lips pressed closed, and my eyes scanning the room looking for someone staring at me because I didn’t know the words or the Sign of the Cross. My first experience with a Catholic mass was part of the largest culture shock. I didn’t know when to sit, when to stand or kneel, when to offer the Sign of Peace, or whether I should stand in line and receive a blessing or sit alone in the pew as all my classmates walked past and stared.
While some aspects of my freshman year just took some time to get used to, some things I couldn’t get used to were the jokes, smart-aleck remarks, anti-Semitic slurs, or an occasional swastika that has been anonymously sketched on papers and notebooks of mine.
The first time you hear it you can laugh it off and think of it as nothing more than a joke; but at some point, the jokes stop being funny and just leave you hurt and uncomfortable. What people fail to realize is you can say a joke, move on, and not think about it again. To me, it’s all I could think about for the rest of the day, the rest of the week, or anytime I saw you.
It wasn’t until my first years of high school I felt consistently unhappy. I dreaded going to school. I couldn’t bear the feeling of standing on eggshells waiting for someone to point out to me what I already knew– what are you doing in a Catholic school.
The only way I felt I could combat the excessive criticism was if I pointed out I was different first, before someone else could. That tactic only made matters worse because I was justifying to others that it was okay. I wanted so desperately to change, to try and fit in, but the more I tried, the worse I felt about myself.
I thought to denounce Judaism, move on, and not tell people that I’m Jewish. I’d learn to go through the motions, learn the prayers, and disappear into the crowd. For a period of time, I regretted leaving my old school and considered returning to where I felt it didn’t matter whether I was Jewish or not.
At this point, I want to highlight a significant opportunity I received to attend the Student Diversity Leadership Conference in Atlanta in December of 2016. There, for the first time in a long time, I felt I could be honest about who I was. I didn’t have to pretend to fit in.
The conference for me was something I didn’t know I was looking for, but something I needed. For a group of over 1,500 students to create, in four days, a community where you felt like you belonged, could share your own experiences without judgement, and could receive the unconditional support of complete strangers was unimaginable. Students my own age or younger were readily prepared with words of encouragement, helpful suggestions, and willingness to listen while making me feel valued and appreciated.
After leaving my brief experience in Atlanta, I came to realize the people at SDLC knew more about me than friends of mine I have had for years. Because of this feeling of trust and respect each person in attendance had for one another, in a short period of time, I was more willing to open up about my life and my ideologies than ever before.
Since SDLC, I felt like I have gone backwards, back to my freshman year self. The problem with an event like SDLC is that it ends. It is a protected space that isn’t representative of the real world. Things go back to normal and you fall back into the same routines.
So where am I today? I realized was tired of this feeling that I didn’t have value. I realized there was more I could be doing. I needed to become an advocate– an ally to other students in our community who also struggle to feel like they belong. The Diversity Awareness Club and the ability to manage the organization this year has been a blessing. It has presented me with an opportunity and a platform to share my voice and my perspective. My story is my own, but the feelings and hardships are ones I share with countless others around me.
Although I have changed, not everything around me has changed as well. I’m still a victim of unfair criticisms, discrimination, and symbols of hate that remain. For example, just recently The Blackfriar Chronicle featured a note and photo about a swastika carved into the pew of our chapel, and from my perspective this instance did not receive the attention it would warrant anywhere else.
As a community, we cannot continue to sit by, failing to realize that being different is okay. Until everyone in the Malvern community feels they are respected and have a voice here on campus, instances such as these will remain as reminders of how much more we still have ahead of us.
Acts as cowardly as anonymously drawing swastikas doesn’t devastate me as much as they used to. Instead, I feel bad for those who remain intolerant to opening up their minds and their arms to welcome and celebrate people’s differences rather than shame them.
To be a true community, we need to reach out and extend a hand to the individuals who may not feel like they belong.