The process of unmasking Jewish pride - opinion

For young people coming of age and building their identities at this moment, masking Judaism is an ongoing conversation.

 Activists in favor of Jewish egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall are seen marching with Torah scrolls through the Old City of Jerusalem on Rosh Hodesh, on March 4, 2022. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Activists in favor of Jewish egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall are seen marching with Torah scrolls through the Old City of Jerusalem on Rosh Hodesh, on March 4, 2022.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Over the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, many things have entered into the new normal. Temperature checks. Nasal swabs. Use of the phrases social distancing, quarantine, and unprecedented. And none more ubiquitous than the emergence of masks.

From the earliest days of COVID-19, when the search for this scarce resource was second only to that for toilet paper, when controversies over mask mandates and the inevitable growing market for fashionable masks began, we as a society learned to carry them, wear them and to make sure our eyes are expressive enough that even behind the masks our true selves shows through. Even now, as masks are optional in many environments, we have started taking steps towards a new iteration of the new normal; yet, we remain in an in-between state, tentatively lowering our barriers one day at a time.

For the third year, members of the Jewish community are preparing for Purim in a world that has not yet said goodbye to COVID-19. Our holiday of masking once again overlaps with a mask-filled world. Of course, each mask that we wear serves a different purpose: Purim masks are meant to hide our true selves, allowing us to embody the characters we portray for this holiday of merriment. COVID-19 masks are meant to protect us from spreading germs.

On top of those, for each of us, there are numerous other masks that we take on and off at our discretion, from smiles to mask tears to tears to mask rage, complacent masks of indifference to mask churning emotions and complexities. And overlaying that? The choices that each of us make about our Judaism.

For young people coming of age and building their identities at this moment, masking Judaism is an ongoing conversation. Whether or not to present Jewishly, both in person and on social media, is not straightforward. Instead, it’s a personal journey, centered on the juxtaposition of Jewish pride, Jewish experiences and concerns about the desire to fit in.

 View of the Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem,  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90) View of the Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem, (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)

The masks that come with Judaism embody a wide-ranging set of questions: Am I a good Jew? Do I do and know and believe enough to identify this way? Am I comfortable showing my Judaism? Am I confident enough to embrace this part of who I am? Will I be accepted within the Jewish community? What about outside of it? Will showing my Judaism change how others see me?

It is common parlance in the Jewish community to express a desire that young people be proud of being Jewish, to strive to create a new generation centered around pride, enthusiasm and active expressions of Judaism, as a positive value-add in the complex lives of each individual.

Many of us know Jewish pride when we see it. It manifests physically with the wearing of Stars of David, the embodied practice of Jewish rituals or the use of Hebrew. It’s emotional, expressed when people connect with the concept of Jewish peoplehood and the arc of Jewish history, and find that their morals and values are grounded in Jewish wisdom. 

It’s external, when Jews show up as allies because they have internalized the rallying cry found in Jewish texts: You shall not wrong a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:20). It’s internal, when there’s a secret smile or an extra pep in one’s step when Jewish moments or excitement manifest.

To educate for Jewish pride is to prioritize fostering meaning-making, where learners can see the relevance of Judaism in their lives and are empowered to share it with others. It comes with the goal of creating Jewish adults who embody the ideals of Purim: Advocacy, self-determination, loyalty, and community-minded leadership. It calls for creating paradigms around Judaism that feel authentic to each person, allowing them to create identities that draw on both individualism and collectivism. 

By removing the proverbial masks that can all-too easily be added to complex identities, we can partner with our learners and their families to create proud, multifaceted Jewish leaders and the lifelong learners of the future. By leading this charge, educators are the pivot point between the Jewish life of today and the tomorrow that we’re excited to co-create. 

The writer is senior director of Knowledge, Ideas and Learning at The Jewish Education Project.