April 1, 2020

When ‘pride’ doesn’t cut it

Growing up an observant Jew in the small city of Palm Springs with a Jewish minority was sometimes difficult, but I have always been proud of my Jewish heritage, of who I was and of what I believe. I have never thought once of questioning my Jewish identity — it is merely a part of me.

Five years ago when I was 11, my family and I moved to Los Angeles, and I was put in a private Jewish school. I had been in a Jewish school in Palm Springs, where my father was the school principal and shul rabbi, but when I started school in Los Angeles, I discovered that my definition of being Jewish was significantly different from theirs.

Their emphasis on Judaism was based on the applications of learning the nooks and crannies of halacha (Jewish law), and it was difficult for me to identify. Rather than assisting me with my Jewish identity, it took me further away from it by focusing on the minutia and not the big picture.

Because I didn’t fit into that environment, my parents decided to put me in independent study or, as we all know it, home schooling. At the time, it was the only option, since my parents feared that a public school environment would threaten my Judaism.

However, home schooling was not all it was cracked up to be. Yes, I was home in PJs every day; yes, I could watch television 24-7, and yes, I could work at my own pace. But what they don’t tell you is how painfully boring it can get, how insanely lonely you become and how detached you feel from society. I wouldn’t recommend it.

As our last resort, after a year of home schooling, I enrolled in a public high school, by far the best decision of my life. I flourished in the diversity, the openness and the acceptance. I didn’t know anyone else who kept kosher, kept Shabbat and went to shul every week, but all the more, I maintained the utmost pride in my beliefs.

However, seeing a world outside what was once my bubble of the Jewish private school, I understood that not everyone shared the same enthusiasm that I did. As I sat in my classes, one boy in particular noticed that I wore skirts much more than all the other girls, which bothered him. He doubted the validity of my religious beliefs, and he wanted me to doubt them, too.

An atheist, he didn’t want to convert me to another religion. He just wanted to prove all religion was false. He was incredibly knowledgeable, and he would challenge me with quotes from both the Jewish and Christian bibles, asking me for the Jewish take on numerous issues.

Now, just because my father is a rabbi doesn’t mean I know all the answers. I told him all I knew, but he was persistent in trying to find contradictions between my personal beliefs and what is in the Torah.

This is not meant to be a story about how public school is a bad influence — it’s been wonderful for me. However, it happened to be my first real encounter with the outside world. It made me realize that one can only be protected for so long and without the right tools of awareness, can quickly become enveloped in deception and lost.

Deception can almost always be avoided through understanding. While the boy in my class was putting down religion as a whole, proselytizers who want to convert Jews to Christianity often use similar tactics. They manipulate Jewish texts, know the great vulnerability unfamiliarity brings and use it to convince Jews that they are incomplete and are missing a link in their faith.

The way to combat both of these forces is by becoming more knowledgeable.

Earlier this year, I was given some information about Jews for Judaism, a nonprofit organization, whose mission is: “To strengthen and preserve Jewish identity through education and counseling that counteracts deceptive proselytizing targeting Jews for conversion.”

After receiving grants from the Jewish Community Foundation and Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund, Jews for Judaism created Be-True, geared toward high school and college students. On April 6, I attended Be-True’s first annual conference, which stressed the urgent need “to preserve Jewish identity — now.”

Even as involved as I had been in the organization before, the conference was still eye-opening. I was fully aware of deception’s capabilities and had been in several situations myself. Yet reading about deception or even experiencing it is nothing compared to facing the fact of just how many people are affected by it. I was able to hear the stories, which brought information on a page to reality in person.

Recently, Jews for Judaism also launched Be-True.org, jam-packed with information, even providing an opportunity to “Ask the rabbi” any type of question.

Jews for Judaism is a significant aspect in my life because I know that while pride is incredibly important, it’s not always enough. Pride can only be perpetuated through education and understanding of that which you love.

Sarah Schefres is a senior at Hamilton High School.