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How Growing Up Jewish in the Bible Belt Helped Me Find my Faith

How Growing Up Jewish in the Bible Belt Helped Me Find my Faith

Teen girl facing away from the camera in a shirt that reads STRONGER in front of a seated audience of other teens

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 it was going to contain some fascinating points of view and interesting facts, but I didn't 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 currently attend. One of the main reasons I switched was a traumatizing childhood experience.

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 attended church and worshiped Jesus Christ. After one showing, our teacher began asking questions about students' churches and our Christmas traditions. I announced to the class that I did not believe in Jesus - and as soon as I said this, I knew that it was offensive to the class, based off the immediate feedback my classmates gave. At first, I was the only one who felt the effects of my admission. I was bullied for being 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. Back then, my father was my little league baseball coach back then, and when the other coaches found out that he was Jewish, they started to team up against him; 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 bullying because my parents soon 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's a very good chance that I might have completely abandoned my faith altogether to escape the oppression I was experiencing. It scares me to think about that - now, because being Jewish is one of my strongest core beliefs.

At a recent regional youth group 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, I flashed 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 different from them and from anyone they had ever known. Now, I understand that such oppression is likely the result of a lack of exposure and education.

Now that I know this, I feel that it is my responsibility to be the best possible example of what it looks like to be a responsible Jew. I may be the only Jewish person that my Bible Belt neighbors have or will ever meet, and it's 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 my family went through.

The writer of this essay is a teenage participant in NFTY - The Reform Jewish Youth Movement. This essay originally appeared on the NFTY Blog.

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