Token Jew

January 28, 2022
Jess Daninhirsch

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States

Class of 2022

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When it comes to my comfort level in expressing my Judaism, I sometimes feel like I’m living in concentric bubbles; one inside of another, inside of another, inside of another–like a matryoshka doll. 

The first bubble is my school. The majority of students at my school are white, East Asian, and South Asian; very few are Jews. I am one of about fifteen Jews in my high school (grades 11 and 12 only) out of a student body of about 1400. We’re scarce, so we have to find a community wherever we can. Of the small number of Jews at my school, I am probably the most vocal of them all. I’m a senior staff writer and the photography editor for my school’s newspaper, The Uproar, and I have written numerous pieces, personal or news-based, that relate to Judaism in some way.

For most people at my school, I am their only source of information when it comes to Judaism. I get asked a lot of questions about the religion and various holidays, and I love answering them (don’t get me wrong, I could talk about myself all day long), but sometimes it gets tiring. They could ask someone else, or even Google it, for goodness’ sake! Still, when I’m in my immediate area, both at school and in my predominantly non-Jewish neighborhood, I often feel tokenized. I’m always the one that’s getting asked questions about Judaism (that sometimes I don’t even know the answers to), asked to make videos, etc., and that oftentimes feels really nice, but I'm not the only one in the school. I wish that all of us can be unapologetically Jewish, out loud. But I understand that it’s different for everyone. Sometimes we get stuck in circles of people that aren’t as accepting, so it becomes hard for some people to express themselves out of fear of getting shunned, or even hate crimed. I’ve been lucky enough to make friends at school who love me for who I am and who don’t view me as different or less than, just because I’m Jewish.

The second bubble is my city. Pittsburgh’s Jewish population lands around 50,000, but you may not guess that if you see where I live. I am from the suburbs about 20 minutes north of downtown, and 30 minutes from Squirrel Hill, which is the most Jewish area of Pittsburgh. I don’t want to discount the fact that I’m incredibly lucky that I do live in an area where a lot of people are very open to learning about other minorities. I feel safe enough to express myself in various ways, such as wearing pieces of Judaica every day or BBYO shirts with Hebrew writing on them. I feel confident enough to publish things in my school’s newspaper about the Jewish experience without fear of receiving public Antisemitic comments afterward. 

The next bubble I’m in is the KMR bubble. Even though we’re a small, tight-knit community, it has helped me expand my horizons beyond my school. Many people from my school only know people at school, so I’m grateful for the friends I’ve made at other schools in the area. It helps me when I need a break from the school bubble. I turn to my KMR friends when I need a break from being misunderstood. And I actually love how small KMR is. With a small region, you get to know everyone a little bit better than you might in a bigger region. This makes it feel like a family–a big, loud, crazy family.

Around 2017, Keystone Mountain Region began growing in size, and we had enough members to form a new BBYO chapter in the North Hills of Pittsburgh called Gesherim (my name is on the chapter charter!). Our region is small but mighty. We have seven active chapters (3 BBG, 3 AZA, and 1 BBYO) with about 120 active members total. I never realized just how small we are until I started meeting people from other regions across the US and hearing about how their individual chapters are the size of my entire region. It was baffling to me that so many Jews could be living in one area and creating these enormous communities. But no matter where I am in the world, I’m still part of a network of global communities.

The fourth bubble includes the rest of the Order of BBYO. I’m so thankful for all of the opportunities I’ve had to connect with the international BBYO community. I’ve been able to make friends from so many different cities and countries around the world, who all have something in common with me: being Jewish. I find comfort in knowing that there are people my age around the world who celebrate the same holidays, keep similar traditions, and experience Judaism the same as I do. It’s nice knowing I have a community outside of my immediate area.

Whenever I feel like I’m alone, I remember the global community I have behind me. Last summer, during ILSI, we celebrated the Fourth of July in a park in Jerusalem. We ate, danced, sang, and laughed all evening. We shouted the Birkat at the top of our lungs. And I had no fear. It was the greatest feeling in the world, being unapologetically Jewish out loud and in public. I felt that I could fit in easily, because everyone around me was Jewish too. I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb. For once, I wasn’t the token Jew.

It’s a push-and-pull situation. Sometimes I like being special; in a school with very few Jews, I like being the one that gets asked questions about this “uncommon religion.” I like having a community outside my immediate area to which I can escape. But other times it feels lonely because I want a big community right where I am. I want people that I see every day in real life who will understand my obscure Judaic references or laugh at my inside jokes from BBYO. It’s a balancing act between these secular and cultural communities. I’m nervous that I will become a different person depending on which community I’m in at the moment. I don’t want to change myself to fit in, I just want to be myself. And I, myself, am a Jew.

Jess Daninhirsch is a BBG from Keystone Mountain Region who loves journalism, photography, art, music, and dance.

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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