“What does it mean to be Jewish?” I asked my mom. I had just started sixth grade, and my new friend Nancy had told me she didn’t go to church because her family was Jewish. I really liked Nancy. She was adventurous and direct. I hoped that being Jewish was not going to be a problem.
“Well, it’s kind of like being Catholic, except they don’t believe that Jesus is the son of God,” Mom replied, in her matter-of-fact way.
That was a radical concept to me. Being part of a large Catholic family in a small New Jersey town, I had essentially no exposure to non-Christian religions. Mom and I talked for a bit about how Jewish people attend synagogues instead of churches, and the Torah is the same as the Pentateuch in the Old Testament. All of that sounded pretty normal. My friendship with Nancy could proceed. Intrigued by this idea that not everyone worshipped as we did, I was curious to learn more about Nancy and her family.
Nancy and I spent a lot of time together that year, and weekend sleepovers at her house were an oasis of calm. My home was loving and supportive, but also busy and competitive, with older brothers monopolizing the television, sisters appropriating my clothes, and little brothers Big-Wheeling and cap-gunning everywhere. At Nancy’s, it was usually just us and her parents at home, since her older siblings were in college. We would play backgammon, read teen magazines, and set up the sleep sofa in the family room. We had the big console TV all to ourselves, and could settle in and watch whatever we pleased.
Her parents were exceedingly kind to me, and I always felt welcome in their home. Her mom would make dinner for us, and her dad told us silly jokes. I quickly lost interest in what might be different about being Jewish. It just didn’t matter.
Fourteen years ago, when I first came to work at CESJDS, my exposure to the Jewish community was mostly limited to that childhood experience. A sample of one is generally not considered statistically adequate on which to form an opinion. Now, however, I have a sample of hundreds. In every cross section of the community I have seen, from CESJDS parents, to colleagues, lay leadership, and counterparts at other Jewish organizations, I find the same: you are kind but strong. You have an incredible capacity to remain welcoming and inclusive even after centuries, millennia, of being targeted and persecuted. You are resilient in the face of tragedy and loss. The net of community catches those who suffer hardship. You are teaching your children to lead with grace and compassion. I am still learning what it means to be Jewish, but as I learn, I am proud to work among you.
Julie Hoover is the School's Chief Financial Officer. She has been in her role for over fourteen years.