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Be who you are

How to be Jewish in rural Pennsylvania

I was accepted to Kutztown University in February of 2013. It was a dream come true; it was the only school where I could imagine myself spending my college years. But there was one problem: fewer than one percent of Kutztown students are Jewish.

Coming from northern New Jersey, I always have been surrounded by a strong Jewish community. All of my closest friends have been Jewish. What would happen when I lost this support system?

My mind would wander to a story my grandmother told me about her first year of college. Granted, it was the nineteen fifties, but hey, isn’t being out in the country like time travel? They have horses and buggies.

My grandmother went to school in Saratoga Springs. When she told her roommate that she was Jewish, her roommate responded by asking if my grandmother would allow her to touch her horns. I certainly did not want to have to deal with that experience when I started college.

Being Jewish felt almost like a liability.

I was worried, afraid of how I would be accepted. It’s hard enough to make friends, and the less you have in common with someone, the harder it can be. I decided quickly that being “that Jewish girl from New Jersey” quickly would become my identity. It is who I am, and who I always was.

I arrived at Kutztown in late August, anxious as ever, eyes still swollen with tears from the previous night, and a stomach aching with nerves. I unpacked, said goodbye to my parents, and there I was. Trapped among strangers. What I had forgotten, though, was that everyone else was in the exact same situation as I was (minus the religious identity crisis).

My neighbors were incredibly friendly, and we quickly became close friends. We found common interests and ties that connected us. I had been so silly – the fact that I was Jewish didn’t matter to them, just as the fact that my friends were Christian did not bother me. I couldn’t believe that I had been the closed-minded one, assuming that others would not be accepting. The stress of going somewhere new elevated such a minor issue into something all-consuming.

It was absurd.

Something else I have learned since coming to Kutztown: being Jewish is like being a unicorn. Suddenly, I am a rare commodity. Judaism and its traditions are fascinating to my new friends.

When it was Rosh Hashanah, I received a care package of apples and honey from my family. To be able to share such an uncommon tradition with my friends is a moment I will never forget. We listened to Jewish music, noshed on the holiday treats, and even listened to the sounds of the shofar via YouTube. It certainly was a unique Rosh Hashanah experience.

The following evening, we performed tashlich. After finishing dinner at the dining hall, my friends and I stuffed slices of bread into our pockets. We made our way to the school’s only moving body of water, the fountain on the north side of campus. Together, we cast off our sins, and even though a dog playing in the fountain started eating the soggy crumbs, a bond was made.

It seems that I really have made quite an impression on my group of friends. My newfound uniqueness has become an opportunity to teach. It always surprises me when I hear one of my friends throw a little Yiddish into their everyday vocabulary. Just the other day, I heard one of my friends state matter-of-factly, “He is such a schlemiel.” I could hardly believe that a nice Catholic girl from the Poconos said that.

Looking back, I cannot believe what a wreck I was over something so absolutely unnecessary. I had been so consumed with the fear of not being accepted that I forgot to be open.

Everyone who starts college is trying to fit in, but it is so important to remember to be yourself. It is the easiest way to face new experiences.

We all have assets and it is essential that we all learn to recognize this. Whether you are trying something new or moving to rural Pennsylvania, be who you are. Be aware that you too have something unique to bring to the table.

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