Author Archives: Rachel Stern

Rachel Stern

About Rachel Stern

Rachel Stern is the Director of Education at the ISJL.

“Funny, You Don’t Look Jewish…”

Three Jewish women walked into a nail salon….

This is not a joke, just what I did with two of my friends last weekend. These tired working moms needed a pedicure, stat! I have been to this salon countless times and am always my usual talkative friendly self to the unlucky soldier charged with trying to make my runner’s feet look presentable.

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Me with my husband. Do we look Jewish?

The nail technician that I am paired up with the most is Daniel, a young African American man who is married to one of the other workers, who happens to be Vietnamese. Daniel and I have chatted for hours over the time I have known him, about nothing and everything. I usually come in with a friend or two, and you can tell that he finds our banter amusing. We might even be on the list of his favorite customers.

On our last visit, my girlfriends and I relaxed and started chatting about something, and we must have mentioned something Jewish. At this, Daniel’s eyes grew big and he said, “Are you Jewish? I had no idea. You don’t look Jewish.”

There it was, the comment that no matter how many times you hear it is just puzzling. You don’t look Jewish.

This notion of “looking Jewish” perpetuates so many Jewish stereotypes and yet also seems harmless enough when asked by sincerely uninformed and curious people. My friends waited for my answer, and I playfully responded that I actually do look pretty darn Jewish (as long as we are talking about stereotypes).

Daniel continued, “No, seriously. Tell me… how I would know if someone was Jewish? What do Jews look like?”

It was such an innocent question and yet so powerful, as it reminded me that there are still many people who know nothing about Judaism and have never met a Jew (even though San Antonio has over 9,000 Jews). Those of us living in southern small towns know this scenario well, and are often the token Jew of our classroom, or school, and almost every group of which we are a part. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s like being signed up to be a group’s representative without being asked if you wanted the job. Some of us readily accept the charge of being the face of the Jewish community, while others are extremely uncomfortable.

While Daniel’s question was innocent, many of the questions that face us lonely Jews can be quite unpleasant. We are repeatedly asked questions such as: Why did the Jews kill Jesus? Are you OK knowing that you are going to hell? and even, Don’t Jews have horns on their heads? Sometimes these questions are like Daniel’s, from a combination of ignorance and interest, and other times they have a hurtful agenda attached.

To complicate matters, Judaism is something that is not always visible to others. I can conceal my Jewish identity if I want to, which perpetuates the situation of people not knowing many Jews. The more this happens, the more people are uninformed about Jews and the more uncomfortable I may feel exposing my Judaism to others in the future. It’s a cycle that can only change with non Jews educating themselves and with Jews being proud of being Jewish even when its not easy. These are both tall orders, and yet we have to start somewhere.

So I took a deep breath, and asked Daniel what else he wanted to know about Jews.

Have you been in a situation like this? What would you say?

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Posted on December 20, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Bully on the Bimah: Bar Mitzvah, No Matter What?

Picture this: a really mean kid.

A kid who spends each day at school calling others names, like fat and loser. He chooses specific targets to publicly humiliate. He excludes people from the lunch table where their own friends sit, getting other kids to “vote out” someone who was once their friend, which they all do for fear of becoming the next target. His behavior is documented, but his parents take no responsibility, and the school needs more concrete evidence before they can suspend him. He faces no consequences, despite behavior that is hurtful, harmful and unacceptable.

In fact, that same year, he stands on the bimah and is welcomed with open arms as an adult in the Jewish community. His bullying is known to many, but he is given another title: Bar Mitzvah.

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In most congregations, to become Bar or Bat Mitzvah, there are many requirements to fulfill. A students must attend x number of services, master the prayers, learn Torah and haftarah portions, and write a speech about what he/she has learned during this process. We ask that students adhere to the guidelines that Judaism provides for living a moral and ethical life. But what about the children who go against what the Torah instructs us to do? If a student is a known bully, do we ignore that as long as his prayers are memorized and his speech pays lip service to kindness and being a good Jewish adult?

Judaism instructs us clearly that it is a sin to shame another person. Many Jewish children’s first lesson is the Golden Rule: love your neighbor as yourself.  And if you do something wrong, you HAVE to make it right. The Jewish system of teshuvah, repentance, provides explicit guidelines instructing us how to make right our wrongs.  The essential step of teshuvah is taking responsibility and saying sorry for your actions.

When someone converts to Judaism we conduct a Beit Din (mini jury) as part of the conversion ceremony, to determine if the candidate for conversion is ready and that her intentions are good ones. What would it look like if we had a similar vetting for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah student? What if our clergy and tutors interviewed and even convened a Beit Din with their B’nai Mitzvah students before they began working with them? What would that look like? Would it involve other children – the peers of the bully?

Perhaps part of Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation should be letters of recommendation, in which the recommenders needed to answer some pointed questions about the student’s behavior and character. These recommendations could come from teachers, peers, community members.  We could ask the Bar/Bat Mitzvah candidates to answer questions in an essay that describes their character and intentions.

Does it seem extreme? Consider this story.

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Recently, a high school coach from Utah suspended his entire football team because he caught wind that some of the players were involved in cyber-bullying. Those of us in the South know that you DON’T mess with football – but this coach did. His brave gesture was so against the norm that it made national news.  This coach made examples of his players, showing that being a good person is the main requirement for any life experience and if this requirement is not met, then additional experiences and privileges are taken away. The football players could earn back their spot on the team through participation in community service.

This act not only had a direct consequence on the players but also offered a public message to the students that had been mistreated that they mattered, and that people were there to help them.

If a coach can do it, why can’t a rabbi? Or a teacher? We’re the ones who have the chance to show all kids they matter, and maybe even through teshuvah and attention, turn a bully into a mensch. What a mitzvah that could be.

Do you think bullies should be allowed on the bimah? Should a Bar or Bat Mitzvah student’s treatment of others be considered?

Posted on November 6, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Hobby Lobby Hanukkah Hubbub

This week, my Facebook news-feed is filled with outrage about the fact that Hobby Lobby won’t carry Hanukkah decorations. Many Jews are upset by this; some are even calling it “anti-Semitic.”

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But is it anti-Semitic of a Christian company to not sell Hanukkah decorations?

Merriam-Webster defines anti-Semitism as “hatred of the Jewish people” or “hostility toward or discrimination against Jews”. Is an openly religious Christian store not selling Jewish holiday objects really hatred of the Jewish people?

Perhaps all of this would be less of an issue if the representative in New Jersey who answered the phone had been trained of a more neutral way to explain this. I think her using the term “you people” is indeed offensive, but that’s not the company. Incidentally, Hobby Lobby does say it is now investigating the actual comments made by the employee.

To me, this is merely an act of ignorance and poor training. Hobby Lobby has the right to order and sell whatever merchandise they want. Would we blame a Judaica store for not carrying Christmas ornaments? What if the staff of the Judaica store said “oh, we don’t carry objects for non Jews”?

This is not a far-fetched; sure, Hobby Lobby isn’t a “Christianica” (new word) store, but it is a Christian store. Just read the Hobby Lobby Statement of Purpose:

In order to effectively serve our owners, employees, and customers the Board of Directors is committed to:
Honoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with Biblical principles.
Offering our customers an exceptional selection and value.
Serving our employees and their families by establishing a work environment and company policies that build character, strengthen individuals, and nurture families.
Providing a return on the owners’ investment, sharing the Lord’s blessings with our employees, and investing in our community.
We believe that it is by God’s grace and provision that Hobby Lobby has endured. He has been faithful in the past, and we trust Him for our future.

 

This is a crystal clear worldview, spelled out institutionally for the company. Perhaps we are the naive ones to expect to find Hanukkah decorations at a place that defines its mission so clearly. We may not like that we will have to go elsewhere for our holiday decorations, and maybe because of that we will decide to not go there for anything at all – which is completely within our rights. But this is not an act of anti-Semitism. If they wouldn’t sell their products to Jews, or were discriminatory in their hiring processes, and that sort of thing – that would be another issue. But that’s not what we’re discussing here: The issue is simply that they are not selling products for a religious holiday outside of their corporate religious adherence.

In the South, we are very familiar with dilemmas like this. We live in the buckle of the Bible Belt. This incident was in New Jersey, but feels familiar. But I’m hesitant to call something “anti-Semitic” when it’s really just “a different demographic.” We can always shop at Michael’s, or Target — or, of course, our synagogue’s Judaica shop, where there will be plenty of Hanukkah decorations, but probably no candy canes.

Posted on October 2, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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