About this post: On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Josh Jury, spoke at his high school assembly about his Jewish identity. If you are interested in sharing more about your Jewish identity or resharing speeches you have given at school, reach out to JessicaBank@juf.org.
Synagogue to me means safety. It’s a sacred place, a place where I can practice my own spirituality and seek my own truths. Sure, it’s a building, but it’s a building brought alive by the people who gather inside. It’s the home where I find sanctuary. A familiar place I can seek insight and refuge upon return. A place where I don’t need to hide my true self, nor the legacy of my ancestors.
As a toddler, my Mom brought me to synagogue for High Holidays and Shabbat services. The services felt warm and safe. The dim-lit room, full of people. Some late nineties and unable to stand, others young and crawling, or crying, or running into the hall. It was simple and familiar and somewhere I would await a return to, time and time again.
By third grade, my appearances became punctual. Fridays for Shabbat, an intentional break from the rest of the week. Sundays were religious classes, a mix of stories, arts and crafts, music, and exploring Jewish culture with others my age. Hebrew school met Wednesdays for a few hours in preparation for the “big day.” This routine became momentous in my life and transformative in the person it shaped me to become.
At 13, I took upon the challenge of becoming a bar mitzvah. I stood before the congregation, placing over my head a royal blue, silver string embroidered, silk Kippah that had belonged to my great-grandfather. Wrapping myself in the heavy wool tallit of blue and white with tzit-tzit that my mother wore at her bat mitzvah, and her father wore at his bar mitzvah before her. I stepped on the bima with fulfillment and determination for the moment years in the making. The crowd comprised of lifelong teachers, family, and friends from Hebrew and middle schools. I took great pride in continuing a legacy, one that felt straightforward and crucial.
I longed to learn more and continued my Jewish education, but the simplicity began to dissipate. I found myself annotating my Jewish studies books, invested in what brought such vitality to my family's generational religious investment. The once tranquil vision I had of synagogue, too, began to shift. I became more aware of my surroundings and the heavy police presence guarding the doors during services. The abundance of security cameras and the headlines of antisemitism in the news. No matter what, though, my kippah remained constant. I could put on my head covering within the bolted, steel doors of the synagogue and be brought back to center. Brought back to my heritage and my birthright.
I ventured on in my exploration with intention. Each summer was spent on Lake Lac La Belle in Wisconsin, at my beloved Jewish summer camp. This place became my home-away-from-home. I fell in love with the vast green hills, rich in heavy pine trees sheltering my skin from the sun, the indigo waters with sailboats soaring by, the charm of the cool wind as I read books in my hammock. Most of all, the community was where the true beauty lay. This place, I soon realized, was a utopia. Here I could be myself. Here I could embrace my Judaism and wear that royal blue kippah, an article I would never dare to wear openly in public, let alone high school. I felt empowered to live and pursue my own spiritual identity.
The counselors would wake us up with “boker tov”, Hebrew for good morning. There was a freedom to the routine, differentiating the stressful school year. We could spend our days kayaking, biking, water-skiing, drawing, or simply playing board games with friends. I’d pen letters about my daily adventures and my parents would reply with how boring it was at home. Even if their lives were eventful, it was against the rules to share anything that might make your kids homesick. And, I never was. I saw firsthand the flexibility of my faith in a reformative space. I marveled at the uniqueness of having one thing in common, our Judaism. Something I’d never previously experienced with peers my age, in one place.
Last summer was different in the overall evolution of my faith and in the perspective shifts of my complex origin. I boarded a jet with twenty-five close-knit summer camp friends and embarked on a fifteen-hour flight. As I stepped off the plane in Israel, my eyes opened wide to truths I know now can never be erased, nor would I choose to erase them. Gone was the simplicity of the old days, and I was coming to terms with the modern intricacy of my identity. I was introduced to Zionism and the instilled value of a holy land that must be protected at all costs, but my group, like I, was different, too. We were the new generation of Jewish teens, and so the trip became a time for great self-reflection and great outer-skepticism. We rode camels through the Negev, swam in the Mediterranean, hiked in ancient water canals below Jerusalem. And through all the beauties, we weren’t distracted from the horrific realities of ongoing war and the political corruption the nation faced, and so we also judged.
When I walk now, through those steel, bolted doors of the synagogue, I stride with the complexity of who I am and the weight of what my Judaism means. I greet the police officers in the lobby, walk on to say Shabbat Shalom to my rabbi and check-in on my religious school friends. Then I place the royal blue, kippah over my scalp and return to center. I take my seat in the sanctuary and I am back. Safe and guarded. I don’t denounce who I am, but I affirm the person I wish to become. I think of “tikkun olam”, Hebrew for repairing the world, and I think about how I can act justly. Not with the uncomplicated viewpoint, but with awareness of plentiful obstacles, and the growing knowledge I hold.
About the Author: Josh Jury is a member of
Congregation Etz Chaim and a junior at Homewood-Flossmoor High School. In his
free time he likes to read, bike, travel, and he enjoys photography. Josh is active
in NFTY-CAR and has served on the social action committee and is currently the
NFTY-CAR Israel Chair. He enjoys spending his summers at URJ OSRUI.