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A proud Jew

Sean Frazier is the winner of BBYO’s AZA Oratory Contest, the results of which were announced at BBYO’s International Convention 2012 taking place this week in Atlanta, Ga. He addressed the prompt: “Am I a Jewish American or American Jew? Jewish Canadian or Canadian Jew? Whenever you live, does your Judaism come before your nationality?” (See the winner of BBYO’s BBG Oratory contest here.)

My name is Sean Frazier. I stand at 6 feet 2 inches tall. I’m 18 years old from Tidewater, Virginia. I have hair that can never decide whether it’s blond or red. I’ve been a baseball player since I was four years old.

I don’t look Jewish, but I am. I’ve been able to keep my Judaism fairly quiet when I go out for the baseball team or attend summer camp. As a kid, I often dreaded the day I’d have to miss a game because it fell on Yom Kippur. Blowing my cover would have been a nightmare.

For a long time, I didn’t consider myself a Jewish American or even an American Jew, for that matter. Judaism just made things more complicated; it made me an outsider.

I grew up in an interfaith home where Christianity was quite pronounced. This environment made developing an understanding of what it meant to be Jewish all the more challenging for me.

With a Christian father and a Jewish mother, I celebrated holidays from both traditions. I don’t remember much meaning in any of these occasions. Present-receiving was often my chief concern; what could be more important to a kid growing up?

At the age of 13, I had a bar mitzvah. I hesitate to say that I became a bar mitzvah – son of the commandments – because the experience lacked much significance for me. It didn’t make me feel more connected to the Jewish community in the least. If anything, it further marginalized me from Jewish life. I hated it when my mom forced me to go to Hebrew school, and I hated the jokes that my baseball team would make after I told them why I had missed practice the week before. They’d drop change on the ground, jeering: “Pick it up, Jew!” and I would respond with, “Why would you say that? I’m only half-Jewish!” I waited and hoped that the jokes would someday end – that someday I could shed the Jewish piece of my identity.

Then, one afternoon in 9th grade, a friend invited me to hang-out with a bunch of Jewish guys. I was initially reluctant; but once he said we’d be playing basketball, I couldn’t resist. I had a great time—even when the game transitioned into a discussion on how leadership qualities on the basketball court could be embodied by leaders in the Jewish community. I soon learned that this program was a part of something larger called AZA – the nearly 100-year old boys’ division of BBYO.

That AZA basketball program was the first time I had been part of a Jewish community built by my peers. The entire program was teen-led, whereas my whole “Jewish” experience until that point had been facilitated by adults that I either didn’t know, or – frankly – didn’t trust to show me a good time. I joined AZA because it was fun, accessible, and gave me a peer community. It was a place that belonged to me, and a place where I belonged. My Judaism began to take shape in a very personal, meaningful way.

And yet the question lingered: Do I consider myself a Jewish American or an American Jew?

Today – as a young Jewish man approaching his 18th birthday, and three years since that first AZA basketball game – my perception of myself and the world around me has changed dramatically. Now, when the occasional anti-Semitic joke is tossed my way, I no longer defer to the sheepish response that “I’m only half Jewish” because no longer do I feel squeezed between Judaism and Christianity. No longer do I feel compelled to defend my Judaism. No longer do I feel Judaism is a burden. Today, Judaism is a pillar of my life – a context through which I interact with the world, deeply embedded in my soul.

BBYO has been the gateway to my Jewish identity, connecting me with fellow Jewish teens from across my area and around the world. This incredible community brings together teens whose interests dovetail with mine, and teens whose interests don’t. They continually challenge and expand my horizons and invigorate my passion for our common bond that is Judaism. My love and pride in my Jewish heritage, awakened through AZA, is why I consider myself a Jewish American.

Being Jewish takes center stage in the way that I lead my life. Judaism lies at my core. Being a Jewish American means that while I abide by the principles of the Constitution, when life throws me its most difficult tribulations, it’s the Torah – our sacred values and guiding principles – from which I seek insight. Although my patriotism is true and unwavering, and I may even be willing to put forth my life for the sake of my country, being a Jewish American means that preserving the Jewish People will always be most pressing. And although I’ll always be that tall, baseball playing American guy, being a Jewish American means that being Jewish takes precedence.

A short time ago, my 80-year-old grandfather looked at me with tears in his eyes and said that his father would be ashamed of him. Ashamed, because services were never part of his family’s weekend routine. Ashamed, because the relationship he facilitated between his children and Judaism hardly transcended the most basic holiday rituals. Ashamed, because he could have done more—he could have done more to raise his family in a Jewish context.

So as I sat there, witnessing this grown man cry in front of me for the first time in my life, I told my grandfather that he should not be ashamed. Judaism has found its place in my life. And I promised to pass the heritage to his great-grandchildren, and later generations in our family to come.

My name is Sean Frazier. I stand at 6 feet 2 inches tall. I have hair that can never decide whether it’s blond or red. I’ve been a baseball player since I was four years old. I am a member of BBYO. I am a grandson of a proud man. And most importantly, I am a Jewish American.

(Sean Frazier, 18, is from Tidewater, Va. He is a senior at Norfolk Collegiate.)

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