My Judaism Will Always Come First

This summer, I participated in Stony Brook’s Robert W. Greene Summer Institute for High School Journalists, a weeklong virtual program where high school students explore different aspects of the field of journalism. While I don’t yet know what career I want to pursue in the future, I was excited to experiment with versatile skills such as expressing myself in a different writing style, asking questions, audio/video basics, and working on a tight deadline. I heard from experienced reporters, journalists, photographers, news anchors, and media experts. There were many new experiences I shared with the other participants, but there was also one in specific that was unique to me. 

As a student in a Jewish day school, I’m used to living by a Jewish calendar. All digital communication shuts off abruptly for Shabbat every Friday night; when I pick up my phone once Shabbat is over, the texts are just starting up again. Breaks revolve around the Jewish holidays, which are always discussed in class beforehand. I’m not used to being in an environment where these things aren’t shared experiences. During the Greene program, however, I found myself in that unfamiliar environment. 

The fact that Thursday of the Greene Week was Tisha B’av concerned me. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to participate fully while fasting. On Wednesday, some time after I logged off, I sat on the floor listening to a Zoom reading of Megillat Eicha, following along in my copy. The next morning, I recited Kinnot after the usual morning prayers. Back on the Greene program Zoom, of course, nobody mentioned Tisha B’av. My blog entry from that day on the Greene Gazette website doesn’t mention my growling stomach or how I mourned the tragedies of the Jewish people. Although I am very proud of that, I didn’t know where to begin explaining it, as having to explain this situation was unfamiliar to me. 

On Friday, I reminded my writing team that I wouldn’t be seeing them on Saturday and said goodbye. It was upsetting to leave them to complete last minute edits and work. But, the predominant feeling within me was that this was right. Every Friday night I put away all electronics and cease any work, but this time it felt even more special, because I was actively letting go. I’d see the website later; I didn’t have to make the finishing touches. This feeling that I don’t have to, and can’t possibly, control everything is what Shabbat is all about. It’s about realizing that ultimately everything is in Hashem’s hands. 

This experience taught me how to actively put Judaism first in my “work-life” where it isn’t being given to me. I love hearing stories about Jewish people in all kinds of professions who put Judaism first. It can be an incredibly difficult thing to do, but it is a powerful way to show their religion is an integral part of who they are. 

There are many famous examples that teach Jewish youths how to put Judaism first in all aspects of their life. Baseball player Sandy Koufax refused to play in the 1965 World Series because it fell out on Yom Kippur. Tamir Goodman turned down a basketball scholarship from the University of Maryland because their schedule included games on Shabbat. Beatie Deutsch would not be able to run the 2020 Olympics marathon because it was scheduled for a Saturday. Young gymnast Amalya Knapp made headlines for refusing to compete on Shabbat. Emmy-winning producer Ilana Wernick will not work on Shabbat or Yom Tov. David Sacks keeps Shabbat as a Hollywood staff writer. Many other Jewish athletes, people in the entertainment business, journalists, and professionals in various areas also make career-related sacrifices to demonstrate their commitment to Judaism. 

Someday, I hope to find a career where my commitment to Judaism does not require big sacrifices, but I deeply admire people who chase their big dreams while staying true to their religion. 
I do not mean to suggest that my experience was remotely comparable to theirs. This was a weeklong summer program, not a life-defining career. I never even had to mention Tisha B’av to the staff or students in the Greene program, and skipping Saturday programming turned out not to be an issue at all. However, this experience did make me think about what the value that I place on my religion, even when it can cause conflicts.

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Rena Max is a senior at Hebrew Academy of Nassau County. She is a Staff Writer for Fresh Ink for Teens.

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