I live in a very small town in west Tennessee, right in the middle of the Bible-Belt region of the United States. Growing up as the only Jewish kid for miles around definitely had its fair share of challenges. When I heard that we were going to hear a presentation on racial discrimination and religious oppression at our NFTY Southern Fall Mitzvah Corps event, I knew that it was going to contain some fascinating points of view and interesting facts, but I did not realize how much of an impact it would have on me.
From first through third grades, I went to a different school system than I am currently attending. One of the main reasons I switched was a traumatizing childhood memory. During the weeks right before school let out for winter break, our teachers had completed all their required standards, and to keep all of us first graders somewhat under control, they showed us just about every Christmas movie out there. In many of these movies the actors would attend church and worship Jesus Christ. After one showing, our teacher began asking questions about our church and our Christmas traditions. I very blatantly announced to the class that I did not believe in Jesus. As soon as I said this I knew that it was offensive based off the immediate feedback that the class gave. At first, I was the only one that felt the effects of my admission. I was bullied if I did not say I wasn’t Jewish, and as terrible, as it sounds, I started to hate the fact that I was Jewish.
Soon after that, the effects spread to my family. My father was my little league baseball coach back then. When the other coaches found out that he was Jewish, they started to team up against him and eventually he was forced out of coaching for the city. When my brother became old enough to attend school, he, too, faced harsh discrimination by his classmates and teachers. Fortunately, he only had to endure one year of this because my parents moved us to a new school district where my mother worked as a school counselor.
If my parents hadn’t moved us to another school system, there is a very good chance that I could have completely abandoned my faith all together to escape the oppression I was experiencing. This fact scares me because being Jewish is now one of my strongest core beliefs. At our recent NFTY Southern event, we had the chance to hear from Von Gordon, a speaker from the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, as part of a larger program focused on racial justice and civil rights. When I heard Mr. Gordon’s presentation, it flashed me back to those dark elementary school days. After learning with Mr. Gordon, I better understand that the reason why my classmates discriminated against me so heavily was that I was completely different from any of them and from anyone they had ever known. I now understand that the oppression is most likely from a lack of exposure and education.
Now that I know this, I feel that it is my responsibility to be the best example possible of what a responsible Jew looks like. I may be the only Jewish person that my neighbors in the Bible Belt ever meet, and this is an important responsibility to educate them. I want to be open about my faith so that others may not have to experience the same hardships which my family had to go through.