From Jew-ish to Jewish

March 30, 2022
Ella Zolot

Charlotte, North Carolina, United States

Class of 2023

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Hi, my name’s Ella and I come from an increasingly common, non-traditional Jewish household. My mom was raised Christian and my dad was raised Jewish, and they decided to raise me Jewish. My parents have always supported and encouraged my interest in Judaism as a whole and integrated me into it the best way they knew how: Hebrew school. I was forced to go to religious school by my parents and in the end, this led to my falling in love with the culture, religion, and community that is Judaism.  

Don’t get me wrong, I had friends in my Hebrew school and liked having exciting lessons, but I detested going somewhere where I stood out against the other students and staff like a very southern sore thumb. My hair didn’t curl and I could never seem to rock the same colored clothes that went with their dark features (this was a really tough issue for middle school me). In the end, I hated that I couldn’t relate to what they were teaching or the students surrounding me, so I ignored it. I compared my Judaism to those in school with me and felt like I was lacking; I had very few close Jewish relatives, only celebrated Hanukkah, and had blue eyes and blonde hair. I now realize that all of these facts do not designate or confirm my Jewish identity, but that was my first exposure to the community.

As my Bat Mitzvah came and went, I thought that I was done with my Jewish journey. I felt that I didn’t fit into the realm of Jews that celebrated and went to temple regularly, the ones who had large Israeli families, or the ones who participated in Jewish events at the JCC. I had no idea where I belonged, so I called myself Jew-ish. I created this space where I felt comfortable not being what I thought an “ideal” Jew was, and this provided me with some certainty in my religious identity. 

Now, the younger me was in Middle School and my only close Jewish friend from Hebrew school asked me to join this thing called BBYO with her. I thought about this offer for a while and ended up missing the kick-off event but signing up in solidarity with my friend. I could not for the life of me remember the name of this group of BBGs that I was about to meet with, who would soon become my second family. I attended chapter programming more frequently, and soon my resolve and confidence in my Jew-ish identity faded as I was introduced to cultural Judaism. This idea and community was not something I could label, but just something I felt that I had lacked.

As time passed, I attended about a program every month and started to build close friendships with these people that made me forget my feelings of inferiority surrounding Judaism. These are the kind of friendships you make in BBYO, the friendships in which you feel the most yourself. These amazing people soon convinced me to go to a summer program, International Kallah. It sounded like a cool summer camp with a side of Judaism, so–without knowing what was in store—I put down my deposit and marked off my calendar. 

Finally, the summer came and I was ready and packed for camp. I texted my friends at the first session of Perlman (ILTC) and they professed their love for a place and people that they only met a few weeks ago, and they kept posting pictures in front of a Jewish, Christmas tree looking thing. I was skeptical and honestly thought they were overexaggerating a bit, little did I know, soon I would be crying around that same tree because I had to leave my favorite people that I met only three weeks ago. The camp, the people there, and my experiences there taught me more about my personal Judaism than all my years in Hebrew school had.

I learned a few key things that brought me to the place I am now, aka confident in my Judaism and in myself:

1. It is what you make it—whether it be a large experience, a Jewish experience, or something as mundane as a weekday at school experience, the conscious decision to put my energy and focus into something has never failed to provide the best experiences of my life.

BBYO example: putting my all into a Limmud about Tales of the Talmud and coming out of it with a best friend who will help me with anything, and a fun way to exercise my interest in Judaism that has helped me to be the kid who actually wants to learn what the Rabbis are throwing down. 

2. Assume the risk of big ideas—this sounds big, but in reality, it’s an everyday practice. Find something that you want to do (you don't have to have a good reason), weigh the consequences, and ignore everything telling you not to and do it! Risk is the ONLY thing that brings reward. 

BBYO example: I signed up to be an IC ‘22 captain because I wanted to plan something big and get recognized for what I could do, not the “best” reason to do something. Nonetheless, I applied for the captain position and thrived and learned from anyone and everyone around me. Then, I had a big ask, I asked to be moved up to an Administrative position because one of our teens was missing and I wanted to be at the top of leadership, I wanted to lead my team. I thought about the idea of rejection and the disappointment of the “no” but I threw that out the window, sent the email, and I’ve never looked back. 

3. Don’t judge people.—That’s all; humans are surprising! They will surprise you!

BBYO example: every BBG and Aleph.

4. Let uncomfort thrive—I stand by the fact that the only way to experience anything worth experiencing, is to do everything. Growth comes from how you adapt to feeling uncomfortable (whether it be with people or materials) and how you engage in learning to feel more comfortable. Make each space your own!

BBYO example: asking uncomfortable questions of an Orthodox-Jewish woman and gaining knowledge to explain the same situations and stipulations to others.

This story may seem like another BBYO love story, but I write this to assume the risk, to put in all of my efforts, to be uncomfortable, and to share my story like I would have wanted a BBG before me to do. I leave you with the cumulation of my JEWISH experience so far and hope that this convinces another person to remove that silly dash that is hard to type and even harder to embrace, from their Jew. 

Let your endeavors be guided by passion, open-mindedness, love, and YOU.

Ella is a BBG from Chai Chaverim BBG #1548-552 who plays field hockey, paints, and if possible will spend all of her time in the sun!

All views expressed on content written for The Shofar represent the opinions and thoughts of the individual authors. The author biography represents the author at the time in which they were in BBYO.

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