Jewish Identity in a Time of Anxiety

This is my third year as a fellow with the students at Kulanu: Cincinnati’s Reform Jewish High School, and I’ve reached the point where everyone but the seniors are kids I taught in ninth grade seminar. I feel like I know so many of them, and it’s been a joy to walk with them through such formative years of their Jewish experience and see what they’ve done with the information and support they get from those of us on the faculty.

High school tends to be a time of awakening political reality for many students, and this was often a topic of discussion in our faculty meetings throughout the fall. As the campaigns heated up, we were encouraged to create safe spaces for students to speak while being very careful to keep our own opinions out of the classroom. It was a delicate line we walked as faculty, and I’m grateful to my fellow teachers for their support and suggestions for how to walk it.

I remember vividly the week we had school following the election. A couple of young ladies who have taken many of my classes came up to me and just needed to talk. They poured out their frustration and anger and let me into their fears for their future. I was honored to sit with them as they talked and humbled by their trust in me as an adult with whom it was safe to share.

For some of these students, the hateful rhetoric stirred up during the election was their first brush with antisemitism. There was a mix of fear, reflectiveness, and anger, though I was happy to hear that there was no resignation. Though they were confronting this terrible reality for the first time, they seemed to feel equipped and ready to deal with any blowback they might personally receive.

Since then, I have been confronted with high schoolers at all levels who have felt the need to discuss the impact of politics on their Judaism and Judaism on their politics. These are young people who have so integrated their Judaism into their lives and their personalities that they wanted – no, needed – to discuss how they were navigating a politically polarized landscape in Jewish terms. I am humbled in every discussion by the depth of their commitment to both the American ideals of freedom and justice for all and their Jewish values.

I have worked very hard to keep my politics out of the classroom and to instead empower my students to live their public lives by Jewish ethical values, and I was pleased to see that these are young people who have developed an ability to see their own actions and opinions guided by those values. In a discussion we were having about antisemitism before class, I mentioned to my students an uncomfortable encounter I had at the hospital during my chaplaincy that week. I was wearing a kippah, and a patient curtly told me “I don’t want your kind of pastor,” and I went on my way to another room. The discussion that ensued, about navigating Jewishness in a non-Jewish world, went on to replace my actual lesson plan. Each of my students had stories to tell and suggestions and support for one another. They taught me so much that day.

We may live in anxious times, but our high school students give me such hope for the future. So many of my students have done such good work integrating their Jewish identities into their larger worldview, and this truly is Jewish education at its best. I hope that our schools continue to support young Jews in the sacred task of integration; if we succeed at this, I know that the future of am Yisrael will be bright.

Sara Otero is a fourth year fellow at Kulanu: Cincinnati’s Reform Jewish High School

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