Laila Sanchez

Armenian, Russian, Mexican and…Jewish

Growing into my Jewish Multicultural heritage and future

Growing up in Silicon Valley in the San Francisco Bay area, I always felt as if I were different than everyone else. My mother is Armenian and Russian-Jewish and was born in New York, and my father is Mexican and moved to California at the age of fifteen. The majority of the people I went to elementary school with were either white or Asian, which made me stand out. Now 16 and in high school, I often get asked the questions that any racially mixed person will know well: “Where did you say you were from again?,” or the classic version, ”What are you?” Based on my looks, people assume that I’m Indian or Middle Eastern. I never know how I should answer these questions. Are these people genuinely interested in my ethnic background, or are they just fueling their curiosity and trying to make sense of those who are different than them?

My parents met each other in 1996 at a salsa club. They were both avid salsa dancers who ended up winning many competitions as dance partners. When they married in 2000, their cultural differences were not an issue between them. Although they agreed to raise both my brother and me as culturally Jewish, neither of them identified as religious, and so they assumed that they would not be raising religious children either. Our family did enjoy celebrating Jewish culture, though. We would always light Hanukah candles together and celebrate Passover with our family friends. However, I never learned much about Judaism as a child, so I felt distanced from the Jewish community even more than I would have simply because of my skin color.

Then, the summer before I started middle school, things changed. My mom decided to send me to Camp Tawonga, a Jewish overnight summer camp. She wanted me to experience an inclusive Jewish community and the natural beauty of the Sierra Nevadas. Although I was apprehensive at first, my mom shared her stories of camp and I quickly became excited to experience it for myself.

During my first year at Camp Tawonga, not only did I feel included in the Jewish community, I felt more connected to Judaism than ever. I looked forward to Kabbalat Shabbat activities, Saturday morning services, and singing songs and prayers in Hebrew. Every new experience at Camp Tawonga fascinated me more and more—watching the sunset over the mountains. sleeping under the stars while backpacking, forming new relationships, and learning more about Judaism.

Because of this amazing new connection I felt with Judaism, I was compelled to learn more and involve myself in the community that I now felt a part of. After my third year at Camp Tawonga, I wrote a mini Siddur (prayer book) for Shabbat and encouraged my family to celebrate with me. As we went around the table at Shabbat dinner answering meaningful questions from my Siddur, I found that this weekly observance resonated with me.

After a while, I asked my mom if I could have a bat mitzvah. We were not associated with a synagogue and did not fully understand what having a bat mitzvah would entail, so I worked with a Jewish educator. I learned about my parshah (Torah portion) and about the service, and I ended up leading the service myself. Overall, my mom was very excited to work with me on this project. My dad, though not as involved, was supportive nonetheless. Two weeks before my fourth year at camp, I celebrated my bat mitzvah—the first in my family—in our backyard. Sixty relatives, neighbors and friends came to witness me embark on this journey of learning and exploration that neither I nor anyone else in my family believed would happen.

To this day, I am proud to be the first religious Jew in my family, and even more proud to be one who does not fit the traditional stereotype of what it means to be Jewish. Last summer, I interned at Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City, where I worked with clergy members and did administrative tasks. I also had an opportunity to study Torah. I’m hoping to become a rabbi. Moving forward, I will continue to engage with Jewish ideas and customs and identify myself proudly as a Jewish person of color.

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