Teens balance secular and observant life

Hannah Adler Freshman, Crossroads college preparatory school

Every year when the High Holy Days roll around, students in secular schools notice classrooms empty out. However, for Orthodox Jews, there are many obligations that must be  fulfilled on a daily basis — not just missing school for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Josh Felsher, Noah Oberlander and Sarah Casteel have grown up Orthodox and they understand these responsibilities everyday when they walk through the doors of their secular school.

When getting dressed for school in the morning, most teenagers just grab the first pair of Nike shorts and T-shirt they can find. Casteel, who graduated from Clayton High School last spring, has a different routine.

According to halacha (Jewish law), Orthodox girls must wear skirts that cover their knees in public at all times. This tradition is called tznius (modesty). Tznius is a foreign concept to many non-Jews, and the majority of students in a public school simply do not understand Sarah’s choice of modest attire.

During the summer before her junior year, Casteel decided to become more observant. When she returned to school in the fall, her peers were surprised to see her no longer wearing shorts and T-shirts like everyone else. Rather, she began dressing modestly like an Orthodox Jew.

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“I showed up the first day of junior year only wearing skirts and (adhering to) tznius,” Casteel said. “People were confused, and I got asked why I only wore skirts a lot.”

Casteel tries not to internalize any negative reactions she receives from her peers about her dress choices. She believes they do not mean to be offensive, but are curious.

“I’ve experienced prejudice-based jokes before, but I wouldn’t call it anti-Semitism…more like ignorance,” Casteel said.  

Noah Oberlander, who graduated from Ladue Horton Watkins High School last May, also turned some heads when he wore his kippah to school. To non-Jews, the  kippah  is among one of the most recognizable Jewish attires.

“I wore a  kippah  everyday to school,” Oberlander said. “Most kids actually really liked it, but when I wore the same one a few days in a row they would yell at me to change it up.”

In addition to wearing kippot and dressing modestly, many Orthodox Jews struggle with abiding by the laws of kashrut while still maintaining a normal teen life. Oberlander, Casteel, and Felsher all agree that being strictly kosher with secular or non-Jewish friends is not always easy.

“It was hard because if my friends went out to eat then I would just have to drink a soda,” Oberlander said. “It was kind of frustrating, but deep down I knew I was doing the right thing.”

When Casteel started keeping kosher, her friends did not know how to react.

“People don’t realize how much a part of my life it is,” Casteel said. “Sometimes my friends will forget and ask me if I want to go to Chipotle on Friday night. That can be awkward.”

Unlike most teenagers, Felsher, Oberlander and Casteel are aware of their feelings of spirituality. Being outwardly observant in a secular environment gave them the duty to set a good example of what it means to be Jewish to their non-Jewish peers.

“I thought that the coolest part about the last four years in a secular school was that I got to connect with people that were not Jewish, and some who had never even met an Orthodox Jew before,” said Felsher, who graduated from Crossroads College Preparatory School.

Being the only Jewish kid that many of his peers knew, Oberlander felt an obligation to represent all of the Jewish people. This came with a lot of responsibility, but he believes it helped him become who he is today.

“Since I personify the ‘Jewish’ kid, everything that they associate with Judaism they associate with me,” Oberlander said. “I had to set an example for everything. Through all of this I really know who I am now.”

For these three students, their religious experiences in a secular environment strengthened not just their Jewish beliefs but their personal values.