My Impact On Social Justice, as a Teenage Jew

My Impact On Social Justice, as a Teenage Jew By: Hannah Shapiro - Photo by Elena Eisenstadt

I grew up attending religious Modern Orthodox schools. There has always been someone trying to force their views on me. One thing that I have experienced quite often throughout my education is homophobia. Though I am straight, it always seemed to strike a chord within me. I recall one time when my teacher tried to inform my class that being born gay was like being born with a disability. This sparked a heated debate among my classmates, and I was shocked to see how many people agreed with the teacher. I truly could not believe that someone could think such a horrible thing. This was a defining moment in my life that helped me realize that social justice is something that I am extremely passionate about.

Another teacher once mentioned a historical figure that was gay, and seemed genuinely disgusted by the idea of it. She couldn’t even bring herself to say the word, using “homosexual” instead. She stumbled over the word, as if it was a horrible, dirty phrase that should never have come out of her mouth. The fact that someone could view others with such visual repulsion just astounds me. A basic principle of Judaism is compassion and kindness toward everyone. I have never, and will never see why the aforementioned compassion should not be extended to everyone, no matter who they are, or who they love.

Another thing that I have observed is that a lot of people are bothered when their own group is being discriminated against, but will then turn around and say derogatory things about other groups of people. They seem to think that being a part of a minority group gives them the right to exhibit prejudice toward others. There was one instance where someone that I knew posted something on social media, speaking out against antisemitism. It was all about how everyone should be free to practice whichever religion they follow, and how no one should ever be discriminated against for being themselves. She then proceeded to post something homophobic, and extremely derogatory. I have nothing against speaking out for what you believe in, provided that it is not harmful to anyone else, and antisemitism is an extremely prevalent issue in modern society. I would not disagree with the fact that something must be done about antisemitism. What bothered me was the hypocrisy of it all. I find it absolutely astounding that after experiencing similar discrimination, someone could be so small-minded as to discriminate against others, for committing the heinous crime of being themselves. As Jews, we know what it is like to be persecuted and oppressed. Why on earth should we then discriminate and invalidate others, just for being “different” from us? Wouldn’t that just make us like the very antithesis of who we strive to be as people? Discrimination would turn us into those that have hurt us in the past, who we resent.

An integral value of Judaism is compassion toward others. I have always been told this growing up, whether it be from a teacher or a rabbi. We always describe God as compassionate, and it is instilled in us from a very young age to emulate this attribute as best we can. We have so many rules and mitzvot to follow, to ensure that we always show empathy to others. For example, when someone loses a close family member, they sit shiva. Friends and family come to visit them, to comfort them over their loss. This is to help the mourner through their grieving process. We have many other mitzvot like this, to make sure that we always show the utmost compassion to each other and be the best person that we can be. Something that every Jewish child has probably heard at one point or another is V’Ahavta L’reiacha Kamocha—treat others as you want to be treated. We strive to integrate this concept into our lives, but I have always wondered why I often hear “love your fellow Jew,” and never “love your fellow human beings.” We are all the same at our very cores.

Something that I’ve never been able to grasp is why this concept should not apply to everyone. Why should we only extend this compassion to certain people? Throughout my life, this is something that has always bothered me. I have always tried to use my being a part of a minority group, Jewish people, to grow my empathy and understanding for others that are discriminated against. We have shared experiences and face similar challenges, and I think that we should use these to band together, rather than allow them to tear us apart. I firmly believe in treating others with respect and compassion, no matter who they love, where they are from, or what they look like. I find the fact that someone could go through the same kind of experience as another person, and proceed to use it against others, to be absolutely astonishing, and, in my opinion, the exact opposite of following in God’s footsteps.

While some people use Judaism as an excuse to discriminate against others, I have made it a priority throughout my life never to do so. I will always try to use my Judaism to strengthen my awareness of and sensitivity toward those who are discriminated against. I think that as a whole, the Jewish community needs to have a change of mentality. Rather than hold our differences against each other, we must learn to use them as the ties that bind us. I think that we need to use our voices, whether that be through writing, protests, debates, or simply changing our own attitude. There are so many ways that we can contribute to social justice, if only we let our religion inspire us rather than constrict us. I think that it is of the utmost importance to understand that our voice absolutely matters, and that no contribution to the greater cause is too small or in vain. Everyone matters, so we all must try to fix the discriminatory structures of our society, in our own individual ways. I intend to take an active role in changing my community’s mindset, and highly encourage others to do the same. I hope that in the future, the world will learn to do so as well, and that humankind will grow and learn to accept the beautiful diversity that is instilled within the roots of our society.

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