The Only Jew in School
I grew up in a very Jewish environment. My family lived in the Philadelphia suburbs, where there were (and are) many Jews and many synagogues. We had no classes during the Jewish High Holidays because there were so many Jewish students and staff members in my school. I had many Jewish friends and neighbors and grew up in a home that valued Judaism.
My mom prepared family holiday recipes – a special apple cake for Rosh Hashanah, latkes and applesauce for Hanukkah, hamantaschen for Purim, and charoset for Passover. (I learned a lot about the Jewish holidays from my mom.) My mom was and remains a member of Hadassah and is the one who gave me a life membership.
In addition to learning about Judaism from my mom, I attended Sunday school, I had a bat mitzvah, I attended URJ Camp Harlam in the summers and I continued my Jewish education through confirmation. In college, I was active in Hillel and helped to lead Friday night Shabbat services.
For the past seven years, I have lived in Nashville while my husband has been in graduate school. Nashville has a small but growing Jewish community in certain areas of the city. To meet new people when we arrived, my husband and I quickly got involved in the Jewish young-adult group and I joined the Hadassah Nashville chapter.
I worked in a public school that I quickly learned was not in one of the Jewish areas of the city. My school was very diverse, with students speaking a variety of languages, including Arabic, Spanish, Swahili and Somali, but I was the only Jew (student or teacher).
At times, it felt strange being the only one. I realized that many of my colleagues did not know anything about Judaism at all. For example, they asked me, “What is the Jewish New Year? Why are you taking off from school?” I started explaining bits and pieces about how I celebrate the Jewish holidays and why my Jewish traditions are important to me. I explained that I spent days off attending holiday services at synagogue, praying with my family and friends. I brought in traditional Jewish foods for my colleagues to try, such as hamantaschen.
Many teachers asked me to teach a lesson about Hanukkah and I happily complied. I brought in a menorah and explained how and why we light it. I also recorded a Hanukkah read-aloud lesson online for students to listen to at home.
It made me happy to share what I know about Judaism, but it also made me feel like the token Jew, an outsider. I felt like many of the holidays I celebrate, such as Passover, were completely ignored. I had never felt this way before. I was used to having others around me who also celebrated the Jewish holidays. I was used to my friends asking me questions like, “Whose house are you going to for Rosh Hashanah dinner?” It felt strange when people instead asked me, “What are you doing for Christmas?”
Luckily, I did not experience any antisemitism, but I know of other teachers who did. That is why the Never Again Education Act, of which Hadassah was a proud co-sponsor, is so important to me. It has the potential to become an important way to fight antisemitism in American schools. As Hadassah’s website states, “The passage of the Never Again Education Act has brought America closer than ever to ensuring we will never forget the tragedy of the Holocaust, that students will learn its universal lessons…” Because of this key legislation, students and teachers will learn the facts about the Holocaust and how dangerous antisemitism can be.
The Jewish holiday of Purim is about how Queen Esther stood up for the Jews against the evil Haman in ancient Persia. She educated the King about her people and saved them from destruction. Esther’s Hebrew name is “Hadassah,” and it was in her honor that Henrietta Szold, who founded Hadassah in 1912 right around Purim, named her new organization Hadassah.
I am proud to be a member of a 300,000-member-strong organization of strong Jewish women who stand up against antisemitism. I am also proud to be a teacher and a member of the new Hadassah Educators Council, which will do its part to preserve Queen Esther’s legacy.
Sara Ruden is a member of Hadassah’s newly-formed Educators Council Steering Committee.