I thought I had a basic understanding of Jewish culture because I had grown up learning about Biblical Jews in Sunday school, but as I interacted with my Jewish friends on campus, I realized I knew very little about its unique culture. I was stunned by the close-knit community and amazed when two people from opposite ends of the state conversed as life-long friends. I initially assumed it was because of the small Jewish population, but as I delved deeper into the culture, I began to realize the answer was much more intricate than I had originally imagined. From various interactions, I hoped to find an underlying factor that ties the Jewish community together.
When the word “Jew” was mentioned, intimate community was not my initial thought, but upon further research, this is clearly a main characteristic of Jewish culture. While researching, I found that Jews were constantly persecuted, even prior to the Holocaust. The Bible provides multiple accounts of Jewish enslavement and ill-treatment (See Exodus 1, Exodus 5, Daniel 1). During the rise of the Roman empire, the Jews were persecuted and oppressed. A few centuries later, the Catholics denied Jewish citizenship because Christianity was the only legal religion. During the crusades, Jews were punished alongside Muslims if they did not convert. Yet again during the Spanish inquisition, Jews were forced to convert or be killed (Jewish Persecution: A History).
Due to the massive amounts of persecution, the Jews were often grouped together and segregated from the rest of the population. Jews mingled only amongst themselves and had little interaction with the outside community (Weinryb, 1972, p. 199). This is most clearly displayed in the way Hitler visibly segregated the Jews by branding their clothing with yellow Stars of David, physically separated them by relocating them into the ghettos, and finally, terminally segregated them when he murdered millions of Jews during the Holocaust. Even escaped Jews were segregated in their new homes, for example: Chicago had specific sections of the city for relocated Jews (Rosenthal, 1960, p. 276).
“Birds of a feather flock together” is certainly true of Jewish communities because “when the Chicago Board of Education issued a new ruling under which the students would have to attend the local high school, the Jewish parents… left the neighborhood for the far North Side” which is where a primarily Jewish school was located (Rosenthal, 1960, p. 278). Not only were Jews traditionally segregated from the general public, they chose to be separated. Persecution and loss had shaped Jewish livelihood and culture, perhaps providing explanation for why they may choose to stay together in community.
During my first interaction with the Jewish community at a Shabbat dinner, I was astounded to find that everyone knew each other even before college. They greeted each other excitedly, danced and sang together during the service, and actively conversed with one another over dinner. Their conversations sounded as though they had known each other for years: asking about each other’s family, friends, and trips.
A few weeks after the Shabbat service, I met with my friend, who is Jewish and accompanied me to Shabbat. I told her how surprised I was that everyone already knew each other, and she explained that within one’s immediate circle, you meet people in your city, synagogue, and school, branching outside of the immediate circle usually occurs during Jewish summer camps. These camps are major cultivators of community for young people and unites them even across state boarders. She told me that, “Even with a little effort, you will be connected.” I asked her about conflicts within the community to which she replied, “While we may have different opinions, but we respect one another and believe that the best way to learn from one another is to converse and ask questions” (S. Sharpiro, personal communication, Feb. 27, 2020).
During my second observation, I ventured to the North Carolina Hillel House. As soon as I walked in, I was kindly greeted and ushered to the back room where there were others making cookies. As we sat rolling, cutting, filling, and folding the cookie dough, I listened to them talk to one another. They all knew each other merely by the sound of their voice and were genuinely concerned about their lives.
As the conversations continued, I realized besides differing ages, first years to graduate students, they also had a diverse spectrum of interests ranging from fencing to teaching. While their interests, schedules, and ages all differed, their passion for Jewish culture was the same.
Beginning my research, I was curious of what made the Jewish community so intimate. I initially suspected it was because of the small numbers. However, upon research, I have found that throughout history they were bonded by persecution. Further research and actively engaging with the Jewish community proved that the intentionality of Jewish people to make connections even across borders is what bonds them today.
Every community can learn from the Jewish community. Like my friend said, “Even with a little effort, you will be connected.” I think society has become so fixated on social media and texting that nearly no effort is put into building lasting relationships. If we look to communities that actively engage one another in conversations, ask questions, and put in just a small amount of effort, we will be able to build a stronger community of curious, engaged, and connected people.
Bialystok, F. (2000). Delayed Impact: The Holocaust and the Canadian Jewish Community. Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Jewish Persecution. March 18, 2020. In Jewish Persecution: A History. Retrieved from https://jewishpersecutionhistory.weebly.com/roman-persecution-of-the-jews.html
Rosenthal, E. (1960). Acculturation Without Assimilation? the Jewish Community of Chicago, Illinois. American Journal of Sociology. 66, 275-288. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/2773054?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
Weinryb, B. (1972). The Jews of Poland: The Social and Economic History of the Jewish Community in Poland from 1100-1800.The Jewish Publication Society of America.