You don’t look Jewish

Posted 7/31/20

I’ve spent the majority of my career working for Christian organizations, starting as a YMCA camp counselor and culminating at my current role with Chatham Habitat for Humanity.

Which is why it …

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You don’t look Jewish

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I’ve spent the majority of my career working for Christian organizations, starting as a YMCA camp counselor and culminating at my current role with Chatham Habitat for Humanity.

Which is why it might surprise you that I’m Jewish.

Or maybe it won’t, considering my last name is Horowitz.

Here is my semi-religious story. I started my existence as a “Yankee,” born in New England and moving to North Carolina in elementary school. My family belonged to an amazing synagogue, but after we moved to North Carolina, we had trouble finding a new one. We were the “Christmas/Easters” of Judaism, visiting a new synagogue every year for the High Holy Days. Our reform nature often earned stares from Jewish friends … probably because we ate sandwiches while they ate plain matzah during Passover.

Growing up, most of my friends were not Jewish, as there aren’t quite as many of us in the South. Teachers always picked me to speak about Hanukkah during the holiday choir concerts. My one musical solo was to the Jerry Herman song “Shalom,” which I lip-synched while fighting a bad case of the flu. I like to think Barbara Streisand saw a struggling Jewish actress who couldn’t sing on key and saved me that day.

“You don’t look Jewish” served as a backhanded compliment throughout my childhood. I’d ask the culprit what they meant by that. It seemed like Aaron in sixth grade based his assumptions off of 1930s Nazi propaganda. But it’s not just gentiles who say these things. One time, in the middle of a crowded downtown Raleigh theatre, a man asked my father if he was “part of the tribe” (aka, Jewish) and handed him a business card. He was entirely basing his assumptions off of my dad’s looks.

When I was a YMCA camp counselor, we were expected to lead weekly devotions. I kept mine centered around their Christian principles, which truly align with secular values — Caring, Honesty, Respect and Responsibility. My mother also worked in the YMCA system, and one time overheard a coworker leading a devotion about how Jewish people were to blame for Jesus’ death. As a result, my mother almost left the job she dedicated herself to for 10 years.

My Judaism followed me to college, where students in a religious studies class wondered why I didn’t know about certain Jewish traditions. I never had a bat mitzvah and never learned how to read the Torah. I resented others who knew way more about my religion and swore I would never set foot in the Jewish fraternity house.

One day, I arrived home and announced to my parents that I was agnostic.

My parents had quite the reaction, warning me that I am throwing away my family’s entire history. I told them that my favorite parts of Judaism were celebrating the traditions, which reminded me of my relatives up North. I told them that I still lit Hanukkah candles and introduced my Christian roommates to kugel and Matzo ball soup. But the religious aspects just didn’t resonate with me anymore.

I believe that if your religion makes you a better person, then it is something to be cherished. I also believe that if someone isn’t religious, it doesn’t make them a bad person. So if you want to put a label on me, let’s say I practice secular Judaism. Pass the bacon and hold the judgment.

Which leads me to today, and my work with the faith community. I tell others that I am Jewish without hesitation. Chatham County has more than 200 churches, and I am learning from them every day. My hope is that as Chatham continues to grow, we’ll creates pace for a synagogue, a mosque and interfaith spaces where communities can gather and connect. Even though I can “pass” as non-Jewish, no one should feel like they have to. And while I can conceal my identity in the face of danger, I must recognize that people of color do not have the ability to do this. I am a white woman that must use my privilege to address racism, and other Jewish people cannot stay silent on this important issue.

Finally, if you are also secularly Jewish, Shalom! I hope this made you feel a little less alone.

Also, I am finally proud of my “stereotypical” nose because it can hold up a face mask without support.

Take that, Aaron.

Rachel Horowitz resides in Chatham County and works in Pittsboro. She is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.


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