by Nathan Evans
My hometown borders Wheaton, IL, which boasts more churches per capita than any other town in the U.S. I graduated from Glenbard West High School aside 483 classmates. How many identified as Jewish? A whopping four. A few times, we've been lucky enough to lure in over 10 students to our biweekly Illinois Wesleyan University Hillel meetings, but on average, around seven show up. My synagogue is one of only a handful in DuPage County. I spent the morning with 15 of my college friends last week. The number of fellow Yids? Zilch.
You see what I'm getting at.
I've always lived in a predominantly non-Jewish environment. No, I was never presented with the opportunity to attend Jewish day school. Days off for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were nowhere to be found on my high school's calendar. I could go on providing more evidence, but really, boiling my life down to facts and numbers fails to accurately portray my Jewish experience thus far.
Due to my ability to retain Judaism in a largely gentile setting for 20 years, many have branded me as uniquely Jewish. When telling other Jews about myself, I tend to stand out in their minds as one who must have struggled to maintain observance and, therefore, has some sort of peculiar outlook on Judaism.
Even so, I haven't experienced any more difficulty in keeping the faith than residents of communities with significant Jewish populations. I've never felt pressured to abandon Judaism nor seen reason to visit one of the hundred or so churches within the five mile radius of my house with the intention of substituting a kippah for a cross, as some have presumed. I'm a Bar Mitzvah. My extended family gets together for holiday celebrations throughout the year. I'm active in my university's Hillel (despite its low attendance rate). When living Jewishly, I don't give much thought to the obstacles potentially disrupting my ability to do so.
Perhaps my willingness to preserve Judaism is in line with my parents' adamant instruction to never be ashamed of who I am. Surrounding myself with the few Jewish classmates at my high school and university might've instilled in me the desire to stay on the Jewish path. But I think the answer lies deeper.
The capability of upholding one's faith when faced with trying circumstances is an underlying characteristic of the Jewish people. Granted, my life isn't being threatened by the Roman Empire and I'm not in danger of being kicked out of my homeland, but my Jewish experience has not been as clear-cut as others of my generation. This lack of a prescribed route is something Jews are familiar with. What's more, the Jewish people have time and again adapted to new environments without thinking twice about compromising tradition and practice. While no one Jew shares identical experiences with another, the Jewish people entire possess the strength to persevere amid adverse conditions.
So although the conditions at hand have kept me from living an idyllic Jewish communal life, I've been able to carve a religious identity that suits me. Maybe my Judaism is unique, then. But my determination to maintain it isn't.