A typical Friday night for me used to consist of cooking myself a nicer-than-usual dinner, lighting the Shabbat candles alone, and then proceeding on as if it were any other night. Maybe I would relax by re-watching Broad City or going out with my friends. But these days, I feel a tug on my heart to be somewhere else — more precisely, to be in synagogue.
On October 27, my world spun on its axis. Eleven Jews were killed in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh; something my family and friends had feared for years finally came to fruition. I still think of the events which took place that morning nearly every day. That these people were torn from their loved ones in an act of hatred just for being Jewish haunts me.
Ever since that tragedy, I’ve felt some intangible responsibility to the Jewish community of Pittsburgh. Especially as one of the only couple hundred Jews estimated to be on my college campus in the Appalachian mountains, I have taken steps throughout the last few months to honor the 11 victims of the Tree of Life shooting, which has resulted in me living more Jewishly than ever before.
It started with my kippah. As I wrote about before, around the High Holidays I bought myself a kippah and decided to try wearing it to mark my Judaism in a more noticeable way. While it started as an experiment, these days I’m wearing it even more often. To me, wearing my kippah in a community of mostly non-Jews demystifies the Jewish community that people may have only heard about through pop culture (i.e. Seinfeld) or tragic events like Pittsburgh. With my kippah, I’m offering them an in-person representation which may, in turn, make them recognize that the community where they live is not entirely homogeneous. If someone asks me about my kippah in a coffee shop, I will stop to explain why I am wearing it and what it means to me (or if I am in a hurry, I will direct them to some of my favorite online publications).
In addition to my kippah-wearing, I have also sought out the refuge of the warm sanctuary in my synagogue more often, in spite of the often below freezing temperatures in our small mountain town. Prior to Pittsburgh, I would typically only attend synagogue once a month, when our Hillel would lead services, because it guaranteed I would have at least a couple of similar-aged friends with me. Since I started attending services more regularly, I am often the only college-aged person there. Still, I find solace in interacting with other Jewish people on Friday nights because I don’t get the opportunity to do so during the week. Since our congregation’s population is so small during the winter months (due to Floridian retirees who only come for the warmer months, who can blame them?) it gives me a sense of purpose to be a part of the number of people who strive to make a minyan every week. I love that my presence may be able to help someone say Kaddish for a loved one. And I love that I’m doing the very thing those 11 Jews were doing when they were gunned down.
As a college student, I often feel a lot of pressure to have Friday night plans that involve going out to bars or seeing movies with friends, and I will admit that sometimes I do feel a little left out because of my standing appointment at the synagogue. But since I started going, I have never regretted attending services instead of having drinks with friends. After all, there are six other nights of the week when I can see them. Friday nights are now my time to process the week and spend time with my community.
I’ll be honest: It can feel like a lot of pressure sometimes to be the one Jewish person in my friend group (often times I am the only Jew they know, period) and I do admit that sometimes I worry that I am representing Judaism in a way that does not do the whole culture and religion justice. Recently, though, I saw a post on Instagram that helps take a little bit of this pressure off of me.
One of my favorite Jewish accounts, @jewhungry, run by the wonderful and refreshingly transparent Whitney Fisch, started the hashtag campaign #YouJewYou. In her initial post, Fisch states, “Anti-semitism is on the rise. Maybe if we remove the veil + show who we are, folks will be a little less nervous + a little more accepting.” She calls for Jews to share pictures showcasing their “Jewish,” whatever that looks like, with the hashtag #YouJewYou. Scrolling through the hashtag recently, you can see pictures of people preparing for Tu Bishvat and a lot of delicious looking photos of foods typically associated with Jewish practice. Does this seem idealistic? Maybe. But it also felt similar to what I’ve been trying to do by wearing my kippah — i.e. raising Jewish visibility.
It is important for me to acknowledge here that I know it is part of my privilege that I am allowed to decide when and where I put my religious and cultural minority status on display, whereas many in marginalized communities do not have this choice. But more and more, when anti-Semitism strikes on my campus and across the country, I feel the need to continue to present as Jewish all the time.
Despite it feeling like the rest of the world has moved on from the Pittsburgh shooting, I still feel its effects every day. It is my hope that one day I will not feel a need to present my minority status in such a way to educate others, but until that day comes, I’ll be the one wearing the kippah in synagogue most Friday nights.