Refusing to Cry Alone

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When I was a junior in high school, I had my first real exposure to anti-Semitism. Growing up in a small, mostly Christian town, I was always acutely aware of my minority status, but I never felt targeted, unsafe, or hated. This all changed during Chanukkah of 2017, when the hateful words “Gays and Jews go home” were written on the walls of one of the school bathrooms, along with swastikas that were plastered on various locations on campus. As a proud Jew and a strong ally of the LGBTQ+ community, I was extremely hurt. The first thing I did after hearing this news was head straight to the principal’s office to express my feelings. He told me that the school would be addressing the issue at an all-school assembly the following week, and he invited me to share my thoughts with my classmates. A week later, I was standing in front of over 500 students, faculty, staff, and community members sharing the very words that follow.

I would like to thank Mr. Smith for inviting me to speak today. With the acts of terror and hate that have recently occurred throughout the world and in our school, I’m sure the matter of acceptance has been on your minds, as it has been on mine. Though incidents that display a lack of tolerance have recently shined a negative light on our community, I believe that it is possible to turn them into a learning opportunity that can improve our understanding of our peers, creating a greater acceptance among each other.

As a teen living in an era where the media often dictates how we “should” live, I can understand how those engrossed in technology may be inclined to shy away from accepting the inevitable diversity that this world is made of. However, growing up in a Jewish family immersed in a mainly non-Jewish community has taught me the importance of diversity. When I was younger, the misconceptions derived from societal expectations caused me to believe that my contributions would be invalid and unwanted by my peers. As the years have passed and as I have matured, I now realize that I have the unique ability to present differing perspectives that may increase understanding and raise awareness of certain issues. Although I wake up every morning aware of the many anti-Semitic acts that take place daily, I have learned that I must not let fear hinder my singular insights or my desire to express them.

Discovering the impact that my words have had has only enhanced the pride I have in my religion. While it may seem as though my Jewish identity has made me an outsider, I have found that, while that may sometimes be the case, I have also developed a sense of community through it. Though I will never allow it to be taken away from me, my religious pride is often challenged by all the devastating acts caused by ignorance. The recent incidents at our school have truly hurt me, arousing negative thoughts that I never imagined I’d have to endure in this typically comforting environment, making me feel as though I do not belong. Questions such as “is it really worth it for me to express my Jewish identity?” and “What is the point of practicing a religion that continues to bring about hatred and disgust?” pound in my head, as if my beliefs are irrational and are not supposed to be shared. Well aware of our diverse student body, I know I was not the only one shaken by these bathroom incidents. Although acts of terror will continue to hurt me, they will never destroy the passion I have developed for being Jewish.

It’s crucial that we start listening to and learning from each other’s diverse stories, as a community is only as strong as the diversity it embodies. For this reason, we must embrace the nonconformities that make us special in order to create a more inclusive and open-minded society. Thank you.

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Leslie Marsh
Leslie Marsh is a freshman at the University of Massachusetts Amherst studying psychology and special education. In high school, she was an active participant in both her temple youth group, NAWDTY, as well as her regional youth group, and she is always proud to express her identity—something she has been able to do through her involvement with Hillel on campus. Leslie loves singing, cooking, and crafting, and she hopes to someday become a special education teacher.
Accompanying photo by Molly Voit