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Why I’m Not Hiding My Religion Any More

Why I’m Not Hiding My Religion Any More

Gold star of David necklace in palm of hand

I grew up in a small rural town in upstate New York and I tried to hide my religion during my entire childhood. In my school, there were no other Jewish students, at least not any others that I knew.

My father grew up in Brooklyn, the son of immigrants from Russia and Poland. It was an Orthodox household and his father was president of the local synagogue. My mother was also Jewish, and although she did not receive any formal Jewish education, creating a household where religious observances and study occurred was a foundation in our family. A religious education was so important to my parents that my mother drove 30 miles three times a week to take me to Sunday and Hebrew school. All the other students attended school in a different district, so they all knew each other. It was cliquish and lonely. I enjoyed Jewish study, but felt like an outsider.

Each year, I argued with my father about staying out of school for two days for Rosh HaShanah because I thought it would reveal that I was Jewish. I had a bat mitzvah, but didn’t invite classmates. I thought I was doing a decent job of hiding my religion, but when I look back I think to myself, “Who was I kidding?” In fact, I later learned that there were other Jewish students and teachers at my school.

College did not include Judaism either. Even though the student body had a significant percentage of Jews, none of my roommates (who became my closest friends) were Jewish. I was not active in Hillel or other activities that specifically involved Jewish students. I usually went home for the High Holidays, but if I did stay on campus, I attended services by myself and sat alone. At that point, I was not hiding my Judaism, but I was not outwardly expressing it either.

The turning point occurred when I moved to Washington D.C. to go to law school in 1989. For the first time, I had Jewish friends. We gathered for Jewish celebrations and developed traditions. I became comfortable with my religion. I traded stories with friends about my upbringing, and reflected on my wish to have gone to Jewish sleep away camp and participate in Birthright. I spoke with friends in detail about their trips to Israel and our views on the Israeli-Palestinian debate. My Jewishness became a part of my identity both at home and at work. It was liberating.

As a quadriplegic, I never thought I would get married. But another turning point occurred in 2005 when I married Tony, my husband of almost 12 years. He is Catholic and his family embraces Catholicism and its traditions. Despite our different religions, our parents’ values related to religion and to life were similar – family, education, doing good for others, showing gratitude, honesty, hard work, and not embracing a material life – making us more alike than different. We were married by a priest and a rabbi (sort of like the Odd Couple), and it was a beautiful ceremony in which the traditions of both religions were observed. Throughout our marriage, until my parents passed away, our families celebrated holidays together, and we have developed our own special traditions for religious holidays. My husband goes to Christmas Eve services with his mother, and my friend Vicki and I celebrate with the traditional Chinese food and a movie. We have adopted the same tradition for Easter. Best of all, we each get to enjoy the meals and family gatherings associated with the major Jewish and Catholic holidays.

At 50, I am comfortable with my identity: lawyer, entrepreneur, woman with a disability, and Jewish. Especially in recent months, with so much hate being expressed toward Jews, I want to scream “I am a Jew!” I’m not hiding my religion any more.

Sheri Denkensohn-Trott, who sustained a spinal cord injury resulting in quadriplegia at age 16, is a graduate of the University at Albany and the Georgetown University Law Center. Following a 25-year career as an attorney with the federal government, she and her husband, who also has a disability, co-founded Happy on Wheels to inspire others, with and without disabilities, to live happier lives through motivational speaking, writing, mentoring, consulting and other activities. Sheri and her husband Tony reside in Arlington, VA.

Sheri Denkensohn-Trott

Published: 10/16/2017

Categories: Jewish Holidays, Jewish Life, Practice, Jewish Journeys
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