Growing up the only Jewish girl in my neighborhood, certain times of the year were always very upsetting for me. Back then, it was “Christmas vacation” not “Winter Break” as it’s called now (thankfully!) and it was “Easter break” not “Spring Break”. So when my friends begged me to go to church with them and “be saved”, I enthusicastically went along. Of course, there was a cute boy involved.
I was about fifteen years old, awkward and uncomfortable in my own skin and unfortunately, not very versed in Judaism. My parents raised us “just Jewish enough” to make it extremely difficult to go from “Jesus was a carpenter and that’s all” to “Jesus is the son of God”, but not Jewish enough to be able to defend those beliefs. We never went to synagogue, even though my grandfather spoke fluent Hebrew. We did however celebrate all the Jewish holidays, and I loved Passover because I got to drink Manischewitz Concord Grape wine. I never had a Christmas tree, never dyed eggs at Easter nor believed in Santa Claus.
I don’t remember how I got to the church that night because we were all too young to drive. NO WAY would my mom have let me go to church! It was a weeknight, so I’m sure I told her I was going to a school-related function. This was when the “born again” Christian movement had quite a stronghold, and again, I felt left out. I was very excited to become “saved” and knew if I could just believe, I’d finally fit in somewhere.
I felt like I was cheating on my religion just sitting there. I was so uncomfortable. It’s like I had a crush on a new boy but hadn’t yet broken up with the current one. What if someone saw me? My secret would be out. What was a good Jewish girl doing in an evangelical Christian church??? It was a risk I was willing to take. My friends all had shiny happy faces, eager to see their friend “saved”. I had no idea what I needed to do to get there, but I was very willing.
The preacher, or whatever he was called, got up and spoke. I don’t have any recollection of what he said beyond calling those of us who had not yet accepted Jesus into our hearts to come forward and kneel, and ask forgiveness for our sins. Do WHAT???!! Get up and stumble across a dozen knees saying “excuse me” like I was in a ballpark to get a hotdog? Go up in front of hundreds of people and be noticed?! And have my sins on display for everyone to cluck their tongues at?? And as I sat there, starting to feel nauseated and embarrassed, my friends nodding and elbowing me to “go on, go up and get saved!!” I realized I didn’t have any sins I needed to be forgiven for, except maybe lying to my mom where I was. I felt ridiculous and frightened.
They were the tensest moments of my young life. I was trying SO hard to feel something. I didn’t. I didn’t feel Jesus, I didn’t feel like I needed saving. I was so frustrated with myself. What was wrong with me??? I couldn’t do anything right.
I froze in my seat, and despite the elbowings and encouraging faces of the cute boy and my friends, I couldn’t move. I stayed in my seat, and fought the impulse to just go with it to fit in. I just couldn’t do it, no matter how badly I thought I wanted it. My feet wouldn’t budge. It would’ve been disingenuous, and even at the ripe old age of 15, I couldn’t pretend to be something I wasn’t. It was a long ride home, my friends disappointed and worried about me because they wouldn’t see me in heaven after all. I just shrugged my shoulders.
I don’t think I ever confessed to my parents about that night, but if I had, I’m sure they’d have been proud of me for standing up for myself, especially in the face of peer disapproval. For a teenager, fitting in is paramount, and we are all biologically designed to seek connection.
But we shouldn’t have to abandon ourselves to be accepted. Those “friends” weren’t friends–I soon learned they were sent by their church to proselytize and get new members. I saw how they left me alone after that and went after other kids instead.
And I realized that being different was okay. I tried to change, I tried to drink the Kool-Aid. I had the cup in my hand–it was up to my lips, but I just couldn’t do it.
To thine own self be true.