Teen reflects on building Jewish identity

Wendy Low, teen commentary


My parents have managed to do the seemingly impossible: they have transmitted to my siblings and me an ardent connection to Judaism. This amazes me. During my adolescence, I completely distanced myself from Judaism. I did not attend services, I rarely observed Shabbat, and I celebrated only the holidays I could not escape.

Being a Jewish public school student is tough. In many situations, I am forced to choose between my Jewish and high school cultures. I allow my Shabbat to be taken from me for four months every year so I can participate in my passion of playing the marimba in marching band. Those four months without Shabbat family dinner are hard, but it quickly becomes routine to skip Shabbat, and I continue skipping when I don’t have to. I forget what Shabbat feels like, how much I like to sit in my house, relax and reflect. I get caught up in my American life and all the stresses that come with it.


When I joined United Synagogue’s Kadima in sixth grade, it wasn’t because I wanted to do something Jewish. It was something to do on Saturday nights.

I got to hang out with my friends and the cool high school members. When I went to the USY kinnus my freshman and sophomore years, it wasn’t to enhance my Judaism. In fact, I thought the prayers were long and boring. But last November, as the kinnus approached again, I was excited to see my friends, and I found myself just as excited to spend the weekend praying, saying blessings over meals and discussing Judaism. I was excited to fuse my Jewish and secular identities.

USY conventions force me to “act Jewish” and I do so gladly. I like using Jewish terms in regular conversations. I like speaking holy Hebrew words with a congregation of my peers from across the country and then 30 minutes later going to a typical American dance with the music of Miley Cyrus, the Beatles, and Jay-Z. Where else could something as ridiculous – and awesome – as that happen? The weekends I attend remind me how much I miss my friends and also how much I miss my Judaism.

At a shabbaton last winter I saw my best friends from the kinnus, along with other kids whom I hadn’t seen in years. We had a blast hanging out, participating in discussions, diversity training, and snow tubing.

Throughout the weekend I found myself crying from laughter, and at other times from the knowledge that we would have to say goodbye so soon.

As I sat reflecting at the end of that weekend, I received a text from my friend, a Minnesotan, echoing something I had been thinking. She wrote, “It really amazes me the close friendships you can get in basically a few hours.” I first met this girl at Kadima kinnus in eighth grade. In four years I’ve spent the equivalent of two weeks with her, but I feel closer to her than I do to some kids I have known since kindergarten.

As I ponder this improbability, I recognize that this is an inherent part of Judaism; our unequivocal connectedness despite the miles, languages and backgrounds that divide us. I am comforted knowing that wherever I go, there is a welcoming Jewish community.

This connection also extends to our Jewish homeland, Eretz Yisrael. I have been to Israel for a total of three non-consecutive weeks, but when I am there I feel like I am home.

When I attend USY’s Poland Seminar Israel Pilgrimage trip this summer I will travel to Israel with my peers. We will pray at the Kotel, swim in the Mediterranean, hike Masada, and eat schwarma.

Six consecutive weeks in Israel will be transformational! Wherever I pray, the Western Wall will pervade my thoughts. When I sing, I will remember the feeling of singing with a chorus of two hundred Conservative Jewish teens.

This trip is the natural progression in my continuing Jewish education. Every time I visit Israel or attend a USY convention it is an affirmation of my involvement with Judaism. I know that this summer will create impressions that will forever affect the way I connect to Judaism and Israel.

Like many American Jews, I struggle with my Jewish identity at times. Although I am not religiously observant now, I realize that Judaism is important to me; it is something I do not want to lose. USY motivates me to be a better Jewish adult. It fills a void for me and thousands of Jewish teens, helping us create meaningful friendships that last a lifetime and building and shaping our Jewish identities.

Wendy Low is a junior at Parkway North High School in St. Louis and co-president of the BSKI chapter of USY. For more of her comments on Jewish and secular themes check out her blog at wendylow.livejournal.com