The only Jew in the school

I previously wrote about my experience at college, where I found myself deeply involved in the Jewish community rather than in a more diverse one. The more I think about my response to becoming involved in this community in college, the more see it as a contrast to my upbringing.

I grew up in a town with a small Jewish community and became used to explain my basic beliefs and answer (sometimes offensive) questions about my religion to my non-Jewish friends. My Jewish identity became the answers to these superficial questions, which happened to be mostly a set of negatives (I don’t believe in Jesus, eat pork or celebrate Christmas).

As a young adult, my Jewish identity was defined by the negatives of other people’s beliefs and practices, which is an odd way to define one’s identity. I was not exactly able to dive into deeper questions or philosophy that much because there was not many things to stimulate such thinking on a daily basis as.

While it was lonely being the only Jew in the neighborhood, it also allowed me to develop a strong identity independent of a community. I enjoy currently being part of a Jewish community, but I know that I would still be able to maintain my identity if I have to live somewhere where there isn’t one. I have seen many people who grew up in a Jewish neighborhood, attending Jewish day school and camp, who feel dependent on having this network in order to maintain their religious identity.

In the same way, however, I find that these people tend to have a more all-encompassing view of their Jewish identity. Living in a non-Jewish environment, my identity became reduced to the time spent with other Jews (which was my family and the small local network of Jews). On a daily basis, I did not really think about or experience my Jewish identity. Instead it became defined by a finite number of experiences, such as celebrating holidays with my family or having Shabbat dinner with Jewish family friends. My Judaism was experienced at those specific times, but at other times I was not very aware of it. My identity became defined by events, instead of the events being defined by my identity. I was not able to think about my beliefs and identity in the way someone could where Judaism was a constant and all-encompassing.

Now I have experienced both scenarios and I can see that there are positives to both. I wonder where I will live and how this will impact my future Jewish identity and who I marry and how one day I will raise my own children. When I think back on my Jewish identity at different points in my life, I can’t help but see the two communities not as two separate books but as two chapters that could not happen without the other.

I wonder, had I experienced a different upbringing, would I instead now be singing praises to a diverse community, enviously looking at my peers who grew up in these communities. Oh well, the grass is always greener on the other side, right?

About the Author
Josefin Dolsten currently lives in Jerusalem, where she is pursuing an MA in Jewish Studies and Religious Studies from Hebrew University. Previously she studied Government and Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University. She enjoys writing about religion and politics.