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The Saratoga Falcon

The Saratoga Falcon

The Saratoga Falcon

Jewish students positively impacted by religious community and principles

Junior Talia Clement glances at the clock, which reads 5:55 p.m., and back at the road as she tries her best to reach the BBYO (B’nai B’rith Youth Organization) meeting on time at 6 p.m. Luckily it’s a Saturday night, so she feels relaxed and pleasantly excited to see her friends.

The theme for tonight is “through the decades” and all the Jewish teens in the group will be creating tie-dye apparel and playing games in which they try to guess the price of items from the 1960s. Clement walks through the door of a member’s house at 6 p.m. sharp and is welcomed by the loud laughter, chatter and many hugs.

BBYO is an an international movement that promotes leadership and strong bonds within the teenage Jewish community.

“[BBYO has] strengthened my Jewish identity and has made me think more about what Jewish teachings I want to question or know more about,” Clement said. “[It’s] also given me a place where I can feel Jewish and understand what that really means.”

For Clement, being Jewish means she has the constant support of the local Jewish community even though she is one of only about a dozen Jews at Saratoga High. She said she feels the encouragement of the community every time she is with her family, attends BBYO events and goes to synagogue.

In addition, Clement attends and is a teacher assistant at the Jewish school in her synagogue, Congregation Beth David. Clement said each of these activities has played a role in shaping her identity.

Student enjoys cultural aspect of Judaism

Judaism, although a religion, is also cultural. It embodies a sense of community that enriches believers’ lives. For example, like Clement, junior Rotem Shaked is also part of the BBYO board and participates frequently.

“This organization, specifically, is less conservative, so it’s not based around making you follow Judaism; it’s based on being around other Jewish [people],” Shaked said.

Shaked said BBYO has introduced a form of Judaism that gives him the opportunity to enjoy the faith without being subjected to religious restrictions.

Although Shaked has never considered himself an ardent believer in God, he still classifies himself as Jewish. He views Judaism as a cultural, rather than religious, influence in his life. For example, Shaked is still in contact with members of his synagogue in Israel, where he lived for the first three years of his life.

Shaked sometimes feels that Jews are isolated from other students at Saratoga High. The Jewish religious calendar and other faiths’ religious calendars are vastly different. For example, when most of the school is celebrating Christmas, Shaked will be celebrating Hanukkah. Not having these shared experience can lead to a sense of isolation, he said.

Insensitive humor aimed at student

As well as isolation, junior Nina Harris said her Jewish heritage has made her a target for anti-Semitic jokes and insensitive questions in the past.

“When it’s really hot outside, people ask me if I’m going to burn like my ancestors did,” Harris said. “People throw money at me a lot too, and that one’s weird because [all] people like money.”

Harris has faced insensitive jokes targeted at Judaism from both her peers and one of her teachers. For instance, two years ago during World Geography, Harris was discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with her Persian friend. Their teacher (who no longer teaches at the school) approached them and joked, “‘How can you guys be friends, aren’t you supposed to hate each other? She’s a terrorist and you’re a murderer.”

Harris was shocked by the teacher’s words, but has learned to deal with these kind of issues.

“If someone I’m friends with [makes a joke], I explain to them that the Holocaust is not something you joke about, (since) most of my family died,” Harris said. “If it’s someone that I don’t really know, I let it go.”

During Hitler’s reign in Germany, Harris’s grandfather left for America before Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass when Nazis destroyed many Jewish shops and homes. Her grandmother and her family remained in Lithuania.

However, Harris’s grandmother was taken to a work camp and was both protected and mistreated by the man who took her there. She was kept alive because she was, according to Harris, “healthy and beautiful.” Eventually her grandmother escaped by hiding in a church attic for a long period.

“She died before I was born, but my mom has told me all these crazy stories about her,” Harris said. “She was scarred by her horrific childhood — she was only 16 when the Holocaust began. That’s how old I am now … I can't even imagine what life was like for her.”

In addition, members of her grandmother’s family were shot in the head, including her 3-year-old sister Chasya. To honor Chasya’s memory, Harris’s twin sister’s Hebrew name, is Chasya.

What it means to be Jewish

Despite the accompanying hardships, Harris said Judaism is central to her identity. Though she doesn’t see herself as religious, she thinks Jewish ideals help make her a better person.  

One principle Harris finds important is b’tzelem elohim, which means “we are all created in God’s image.” According to Harris, this principle encourages believers to be more accepting to others since, as images of God, they are share an unbreakable bond created by God himself.

“I personally don't believe in God, but the idea of b'tzelem elohim is really beautiful,” Harris said. “It makes people want to do better.”

Like Shaked, she identifies mostly with the cultural aspect of Judaism.

Before moving to the school in ninth grade, Harris attended Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto. The school required students to take classes such as Jewish Studies and Hebrew. Harris enjoyed her time there, but was somewhat glad to leave.

“[Judaism] was such a big part of my life that I wanted to know what it was like without it, so I don’t go to synagogue that often anymore, just on the important holidays,” Harris said.

Still, Harris  finds ways to keep in touch with her Jewish roots by going to Camp Tawonga, a three-week Jewish summer camp near Yosemite every year. Harris said that camp is her favorite three weeks of the year because she and her campmates work on being independent and forming their own personal identities by using Jewish principles to guide them.

For instance, at the camp, during the women’s campfire, they discuss how to empower and respect themselves as they are. One way they do this is by reading “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou aloud. Toward the end of the campfire, everyone attending speaks of something they can teach others and something they are learning.

“[The last activity] is meant to demonstrate that everyone has something incredible about themselves that others would be lucky to learn about them, and that even a successful older woman is still learning something,” Harris said.

The last thing the girls do at the campfire is sing a song which contains lyrics about love, hope, and self-importance which is meant to empower each of the girls at the campfire.

“The song embodies the spirit of the campfire and Camp Tawonga as a whole,” Harris said. “The words remind me every day that I am important and that my life is miracle.”

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