As an Observant Jew at a Secular University (Part I) – Devorah Fisher

What does it mean to be the representative of a community that neither elected you nor gave you leave to represent them? This is the question that runs through my mind most days in Madison. With the start of the semester and this interfaith fellowship, I’ve been contemplating this regularly.

When I announced my decision to attend UW three years ago, many people from my family, school, and synagogue told me to make a Kiddush Hashem, literally “a sanctification of God”, but figuratively “a good impression”. As one of only a handful of traditionally practicing Jews in Dane County, let alone on our campus, I often don’t have the luxury of being an individual. The knowledge that I am the only remotely Orthodox Jew that many people here will ever interact with in any meaningful capacity weighs heavily on me. By process of elimination, I become the spokesperson for global Orthodox Jewry in most rooms I enter. 

Whether I like it or not, I am the unwilling representative of a community I’m sometimes unsure I can entirely claim membership to, simply because I exist in a space where they do not. And I don’t like it. I don’t enjoy feeling responsible for the public image of an entire subsection of Jews, when all I want to do is live quietly in a way I feel is genuine to me. 

I’m an intensely private person, and crave anonymity. I dislike sharing even with most of my friends, let alone with an entire cohort of interfaith fellows—or the anonymous readership of an online blog. Not because I doubt the things I have to say are worth saying, but because I doubt that I should be the one to say them. Yet with the polarizing climate in America today, I’ve begun to assign new importance to the questions I am asked regularly, such as “Why don’t you dress/act/eat/look/pray/talk like other people/Jews I know?”. I’ve begun to wonder if being more open about why I only wear skirts, why I never go to Friday night parties, why I don’t eat in any of the restaurants in Madison, and why I have a name that doesn’t sit well on English-speaking tongues might contribute to an environment of inclusivity and understanding of cultures and faiths that aren’t “mainstream”. I’ve begun to wonder if asking others questions of my own and reassessing my unwillingness to step forward as an individual can do a small part to start positive, educational conversations. I can’t speak for any community or larger group, but I’m hoping to engage in interfaith dialogue to speak for myself to the benefit of others.