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By Melissa Henriquez
Growing up in a small, rural town in northern New Jersey in the â€™80s, I never had perfect attendance in school. Not because I was sick or because my family took vacations outside the school calendar, but rather because every fall, I needed to take two days off in observance of the Jewish holidays.
Unlike my friends who grew up in one of the predominantly Jewish parts of our stateâ€”where schools are closed for the High Holidaysâ€”I was one of about six Jewish families in our entire school district. So for us, school was definitely open and the High Holidays were consideredÂ excusedÂ absences (but still counted as absences), which meant Iâ€™d never have perfect attendance.
Of course, what I share today as a sore spot of my youth seems beyond frivolous now at 36 and a married mother of two. But at the time, it really bothered me. I already knew I was â€śdifferentâ€ť from the other kids.
Sometimes I really loved being unique. For example, my bat mitzvah was the first one my friends who weren’t Jewish had ever been toâ€”it was their inaugural exposure to Judaism and, not surprisingly, it was happily met with rave reviews. After all, whatâ€™s not to love? Thereâ€™s the party and the fancy dresses and the DJ and the neon necklaces and Shirley Temples.
Yet, other than the fact that I missed some school days each fall, or that I attended Hebrew School and had a bat mitzvah (whereas they all went to CCD at the same Catholic church and had confirmations), my religion remained a very personal thing for most of my childhood. It wasnâ€™t until I was getting ready to look at colleges that I realized finding a school with a large Jewish population was going to be really important to me.
I didnâ€™t want to be the only Jewish kid on the block anymore.
And so I accepted an offer from American University in our nationâ€™s capitalâ€”affectionately dubbed â€śGay Jewâ€ť (or at least it was called that when I attended, 1997-2001!).Â At American, I found myself part of the crowdâ€”religion often came up in conversation (as did politics, internship opportunities and study abroad plans). Suddenly, being JewishÂ bondedÂ me to others. And later my freshman year, I even dated an NJB (Nice Jewish Boy) for a few months.
I finally felt like I belonged atÂ AU, like I was among my people. And though the university didnâ€™t close for the High Holidays, many professors canceled class, either for their own observances or because they recognized many students would be going home to their families. Instead of being singled out at American, I feltÂ accepted, not having to explain at length why I couldnâ€™t present a group project on Rosh Hashanah. It was justÂ understood.
So you can imagine I was none too happy when I learned Iâ€™d have to take PTO for the Jewish holidays, as at this particular company, sick, vacation, personal and religious holidays all fell in one PTO bucket. It didnâ€™t seem fair to me when Iâ€™d be perfectly willing to work Christmas Day and Christmas Eveâ€”which were considered company holidays.
It was a poignant reminder that, once again, I was back to being in the minorityâ€”even in a culturally, religiously, ethnically diverse city like Washington, I still had to â€śexplainâ€ť myself.
Years later, when my husband (who isn’t Jewish) and I moved to Kalamazoo for his job, I told my parents, â€śGREAT. Iâ€™ll be the only Jew in Kalamazoo!â€ť And it sure felt that way for a while. My one Jewish friend here was my friend Dana in Chicago, two hours away. But then my husband introduced me to his new colleague, Emilyâ€”and said, half-kidding, â€śSheâ€™s JewishÂ andÂ has curly hair, too; youâ€™ll be best friends!â€ť
And he was right. She is one of my best friends, to this day.
When the ad agency I worked for was acquired by a global marketing firm a couple years ago, one of the best changes to come out of the acquisition was that now religious holidays are counted as personal days, versus PTO. Though Iâ€™m still the only Jew in our Kalamazoo office, I no longer feel â€śalone,â€ťÂ or like I have to explain myself, knowing this is an across-the-board policy.
Which brings me to present day. Our 5-year-old daughter Maya is really into the Jewish holidays, traditional foods and singing the songs Iâ€™ve taught her. She can begin Hebrew school this coming fall, and Iâ€™m excited to begin her formal Jewish educationâ€”but I know how small the Jewish community is here in Kalamazoo. Itâ€™s just a tad bit larger than my hometown community was, and I worry about how sheâ€™ll feel, being one of just a few Jewish kids in her elementary school.
While Iâ€™ve always been proud of who I am and love our faith and its teachings, I remember that hard-to-explain, nagging feeling of not belonging growing upâ€¦ and it plagues me. Though I know as parents, we shouldnâ€™t project our emotions onto our kids, itâ€™s hardÂ notÂ to when experience is tainting how we feel. Fortunately, the synagogue we will be joining has a lot of young families and even some interfaith families like oursâ€”so I am sure we will get some guidance from those who have gone before us. But itâ€™s hard living in a community where we really are a minority.
Itâ€™s my hope that I can instill in her that being â€śdifferentâ€ť is what makes her specialâ€”what makes her (and our family) interesting and unique. We might have to explain ourselves to some people, especially living here in the Midwest in a city without many Jewish families, but thatâ€™s OK. Who knows, maybe sheâ€™ll find her place in college, just like her mama did.
This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.
MelissaÂ HenriquezÂ is red-headed Jew from Jersey who married a wonderful dark-haired Catholic guy from El Salvador. They met in college, endured several years of long-distance love, married in 2006 and now liveÂ in Michigan with their two wonderful children: Maya (5) and Ben (2).Â By day, she is a marketing manager at a global marketing agency and by night she blogs atÂ Let There Be LightÂ (est. 2008).Â Melissa’s writing has been featured on Babble.com and The Huffington Post.