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Published Monday, April 4, 2016

Coming to Terms with Her Judaism

By Amy Vogel

The author is inducted as N’siah (president) of the BBYO New England Region in April of last year.

I will never forget the first day that I felt singled out by my religion: standing in my third grade classroom on the first day of Passover, I realized I would have to battle the tray of vanilla cupcakes topped with whipped frosting that my classmate had brought in to celebrate her birthday. Honestly, I hated keeping Passover, but I did it anyway because I was eight and it was just what I did.

After my class sang “Happy Birthday,” the teacher passed out the cupcakes while I looked at my classmates, praying that I wouldn’t have to endure Passover alone. Maybe God wasn’t listening, because each of my classmates took a cupcake, and I just stood there, dumbfounded. I hate Passover, I repeated in my mind as my throat widened and tears welled up behind my eyes. It’s not fair that I’m the only one who cares about being Jewish, I cried to my dad, hugging him around his knees when he picked me up from school that day. I hate being Jewish.

To me, being Jewish once felt like wandering the desert: I was lost in my surroundings, thirstily searching for some way out. I felt trapped in my identity and ashamed of who I was. But over the years, I have come to be proud of my Jewish identity; I found my way out of that desert by diving in.

During my freshman year, I became involved with BBYO, an international Jewish youth movement. I was so nervous at my first event, a mall scavenger hunt, but the girls in my chapter welcomed me as if I were already a part of the BBYO family. My next event was a chapter sleepover, and it was there that I discovered the amazing sisterhood component of BBYO. I stayed up half the night talking to a girl a year older than me whom I probably wouldn’t have spoken to outside of BBYO, and we’ve been friends ever since. A few months later, I went out on a limb and ran for chapter board, and I’ve never looked back.

As the president of my chapter last year, I planned many programs for other girls my age aimed towards making religion something more attainable. For example, in addition to saying the Havdalah prayers to welcome the new week, we sang popular songs that celebrated a new beginning. We debated current world issues in the context of Jewish values. We supported our local homeless shelter in the spirit of Tikkun Olam: repairing the world.

BBYO has given me countless opportunities to travel to international conventions and leadership training summer programs where I have met Jews from all over the world. This has taught me yet another important aspect of Judaism, globalization: the worldwide Jewry created on the basis of shared history and understanding. This year, I am serving as the president of New England Region BBYO. I communicate regularly with the chapter presidents and the regional board in order to provide Jewish teens with meaningful Jewish experiences that inspire them to reach their own understanding of Judaism the way I have. Through this work, I have emphasized that Judaism can encompass much more than a belief in God; it can be about heritage, sisterhood, and leadership.

The Jewish people are considered to be the “Children of Israel.” The word “Israel” means literally to “struggle with God.” Thus, the idea of asking questions and struggling with religion is as central to Judaism as is the Holy Land itself. To me, Judaism is my BBYO sweatshirts, my passion for Israel, my own style of keeping Kosher, celebrating old traditions in new contexts, meeting Jews from around the world, and searching for some higher power. But my concept of Judaism is allowed to change.

BBYO has given me the voice to ask questions, the passion to discover, and the confidence to be who I am, shamelessly. So, while I certainly don’t have everything figured out, I am not afraid to delve into my identity because there is one thing I know for sure: I am a Jew, a daughter of Israel.

Amy Vogel is a senior at Wheeler School in Providence, RI, and is the Regional N’siah (president) of BBYO’s New England Region. She grew up in Providence. If you are a teen, or know a teen who would be interested in BBYO, contact Samantha Walsh at swalsh@bbyo.org.

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