Being Jewish in the Bible Belt

Being Jewish in the Bible Belt

Being Jewish in a very Christian school can be worse than being a Texan in New York City. Ten-gallon hats, giant belt buckles and cowboy boots strutting down the streets of Manhattan will get you looks and sometimes negative comments behind your back or to your face. Everyone has an opinion, and some don’t mind sharing theirs with you. Here in Texas, comments and negative chatter about many topics is abundant. For me specifically, it is about the fear, ignorance and basic lack of exposure other people have to Jewish people.

Since I moved to Missouri City, a small suburb of Houston, eight years ago, I’ve been frequently bullied for being Jewish and not accepting Jesus as my savior. I remember when a friend of mine came for dinner one evening and without hesitation told my family that we were “all going to go to hell.” This comment from someone who I thought was my friend confused me, hurt me and made me question my basic beliefs.

Personally, I have experienced more than a dirty look from others now and then. I have overheard whispers — “that’s Abby, she’s a Jew” — and friends making kosher jokes and references about Jewish people being cheap. I eventually started telling Jewish jokes myself, hoping that if I participated, somehow it might be easier for me. That was definitely not the case. It was even less acceptable for me to make fun of myself and my culture than it was for others. Everyone was so flabbergasted that a majority of them stopped making the jokes themselves. But it didn’t change their mindset about Jewish people.

In ninth grade, something changed. I became part of the North American Federation of Temple Youth, also known as NFTY or, as all the teens I know call it, “home.” NFTY is where Jewish teens get together all over the country to hang out, build friendships, strengthen their Jewish identities and learn leadership skills through community building, worship opportunities, social action and experiential youth-led Jewish educational programming.

Balancing NFTY programs with my academic responsibilities and extracurricular school activities became difficult at times, and I had to make sacrifices on both sides. These sacrifices included many late nights awake completing school assignments and only being able to accept certain roles in theater productions when rehearsals would not be in conflict with NFTY events. The most difficult sacrifice I felt that I had to make was missing my very first NFTY event ever, because I felt that attending SAT prep classes took priority.

Many NFTY-ites will fill leadership roles, either in their local temples or in the Texas/Oklahoma region. I am extremely grateful to have been elected for two positions: first as president of my temple youth group and second as Ruach Leader for the NFTY regional cabinet. I never dreamed of holding these two amazing positions and with them, I have become so much more outgoing, competent in my breadth of knowledge of myself as well as my Judaism. Holding these positions has taught me to combat the rudeness of others and helped me to realize that I am not alone. NFTY is an extremely important organization, instilling knowledge through education, faith through prayer and values and caring through community service.

In the past year, I have been honored by my rabbis and youth leaders on numerous occasions to read during services. I still have vivid memories of the 11-year-old girl begging, pleading and doing anything and everything to talk her parents into letting her stay home from religious school. Who knew she would end up feeling strong enough about her faith to stand in front of a group of people and tell the world she is Jewish?

I am not afraid to speak a little Yiddish or wear a shirt with something Jewish on it. I am not uncomfortable telling my teachers that I will be absent from school because of a Jewish holiday or event. I am proud to be a bat mitzvah, a NFTY-ite and an active member in my synagogue and community. I even enjoy introducing traditional Jewish foods to my friends for the first time. I feel now that just by being myself and teaching my friends about my faith, I can make a difference against religious discrimination one person at a time.

I can only hope that anyone else who may feel compelled to change who she is to be accepted will realize that she doesn’t need to change, that she shouldn’t change to please others. We all have gifts that we can contribute to our families, to our schools and to our communities. I look forward to growing into a person who makes space in my own life for accepting others, just as I hope to have others be more accepting of me.

Abby Lee Rast, 18, lives in Missouri City, Texas. Her mother, Claire Briskin Rast, grew up in Squirrel Hill.