I walked into my new high school on the first day and found myself immediately surrounded by strangers. People of different skin colors and different backgrounds all shared one thing—they were all strangers to me. I’ve lived in New York City my whole life. Diversity is nothing new to me. But until that day, I’d never seen such diversity in my school.
For ten years, I attended the same private, Jewish day school. I created lifelong friendships with the same 45 classmates. I was greeted each morning by the same smell of burnt challah. And I was surrounded by the same, isolated community of Upper West Side Jews. That is, I was enshrined in a “liberal Jewish bubble.” For the most part, I only interacted with people who looked like me, dressed like me, spoke like me and held the same beliefs as me. I was spoon fed my outlook on the world, and my beliefs reflected those of people around me. While my time at a Jewish private school served as an important force in shaping my identity, it did not push the boundaries of my thought.
Going into my first day at a New York City public high school was like walking to the edge of a cliff blindfolded. I had no idea what to expect. It felt strange to attend school in an entirely different place, apart from the classmates and teachers I had grown so close to. At first, I had trouble bridging gaps with students who were religiously, ethnically, ideologically or economically different from me. I had an incessant craving to return to my isolated bubble where I felt safe and comfortable. I instinctually connected with students who seemed similar to those I had left behind, and for a while, I missed out on valuable friendships with people with different life experiences than mine.
Ironically, I soon realized that getting out of my comfort zone was the only way to truly feel comfortable in my changing environment. I made an effort to speak to people who I assumed I had nothing in common with. I encouraged myself to talk openly about differences, and I tried to keep an open mind about other peoples’ beliefs and practices. Predictably, I ended up forging incredible bonds with people I have lots in common with, even though they grew up “outside of the bubble.”
My single most important takeaway from my transition from private Jewish day school to public school is that a single perspective never paints a full picture of an issue at hand. Learning to communicate with the “other” can broaden one’s sense of the world, promote empathy, reduce prejudice, and encourage discussion.
Diverse perspectives are at the very heart of Judaism. The Talmud particularly emphasizes the value of studying the Torah in pairs: “Two scholars learning together sharpen one another” (Ta’anit 7a). In other words, a truly nuanced understanding of the Torah can only be attained through listening to the perspectives of others. When seeking the truth, we must first understand that every individual has their own truth. The key to grasping the complexities of the world is being exposed to contradicting truths and learning how to reconcile them.
Mia Penner is a sophomore at the High School of American Studies at Lehman College.