At Jewish summer camp (Camp Tawonga, to be specific), I felt a little different than the other campers. I wasn’t raised religiously Jewish and was also from a lower income interfaith family. I attended public school with mostly non-white students and had never been to a synagogue in my life. I didn’t have a clear understanding of my Jewish identity. My Jewish mother was the first in our family to stop Jewish religious practice, so she was struggling with how to best integrate being Jewish into my upbringing.
These days, my mother sometimes cries because of guilt she feels about not having provided me with a Jewish education or religious experience. I tell her it’s OK because I am the face of the new American Jewish identity. I also make efforts to encourage other Jews from interfaith and mixed race families to feel proud of their identity. I frequently hear from “Jews like me” that they want nothing to do with the mainstream Jewish community because they “aren’t really Jewish” or feel concerned they’ll be questioned, shamed or called out for not being Jewish enough.
My one Jewish connection, though, was Jewish summer camp where I didn’t know the prayers, but was relieved they had a large display to read off of so I didn’t feel ashamed or afraid to learn. To date, they are the only Jewish prayers I can recall from memory. As an adult, during my years working as a Jewish professional, I was astounded by the subtle difference in attitude I sometimes experienced within the Jewish community. I felt scrutinized whenever I asked questions about Jewish religious practice or shared that I didn’t know much about it. It was assumed that because I was a Jewish professional, I automatically knew about the religious practice. The subtle bad attitudes I experienced sometimes caused me to feel unwelcomed and excluded.
I’m sensitive about my lack of knowledge of religious practice and feel ashamed when I don’t have special support and an acknowledgement that it’s OK if you don’t know certain things. When I go to synagogue, it would mean the world to me if the rabbi stated that they wanted to welcome everyone, including those not familiar with the prayers and practice. When I don’t know the prayers, I feel embarrassed and afraid someone will notice and think I’m not a good enough Jew. As for Jewish leaders and community members already going to great lengths to be inclusive toward every kind of Jew, I salute you—it doesn’t go unnoticed.
Our work is far from over, particularly with the population composure and religious practice preference changes taking place in America that are reflected within the Jewish community. Each and every one of us can and should continue to find new and creative ways to address these challenges. Special support systems for “Jews like me” are much needed and can make a big difference in strengthening the diversity of our community.