Is Judaism a religion, race or culture?


Rachel Stein was the winner of BBYO’s BBG Oratory Contest, the results of which were announced at BBYO’s International Convention 2013, which ended Sunday in Washington, DC.  She addressed the prompt: “Is Judaism a religions, race or culture? Can it be all three?  Is it something entirely different?”

“You’re not actually Jewish.”

The words pierce my ears.

“You don’t look Jewish.”


“You’re not actually Jewish. You didn’t have a Bat Mitzvah.”


“You’re not really Jewish because your Mom is Christian.”

I search their face. The face of every single person who’s ever told me that I’m “not actually Jewish.”

I am searching their face looking for something that I am missing.

As if looking into his or her eyes, I will find something that no one ever told me.

The secret to actually being Jewish.

Because according to them, I don’t belong.

Last time I checked, being Jewish wasn’t a race. You can’t “look Jewish.”

My strawberry blonde hair is no different than your dark curly locks because we can braid it down our backs the same way when we press our foreheads against the Wailing Wall.

And even though I never read from the Torah.

Even though I never spent months trying to remember trope from a CD.

Even though I never stood in front of my congregation and thanked my parents for helping me to reach this day….it doesn’t mean I’m not Jewish.

My religious path may not have brought me to a Bat Mitzvah but instead it led me to a crooked bench at a summer camp.

Singing prayers with my friends at the top of our lungs and watch puppet shows about the weekly parasha.

I have never felt more connected to G-d.

Being Jewish is the smell of smoked salmon on your hands after every family brunch.

It is the Bat Mitzvah invitations and the summer camp yearbooks.

It’s the set of candles from Israel and the Shabbat dinners when you light them.

It’s the broken glass from your wedding and the nap you take on Yom Kippur when you are hungry. Being Jewish is the silver Star of David that has hung from your neck since you were thirteen.

A constant reminder of being Jewish. And a proclamation to the world that you are, in fact proud of being a Jew. Because no matter what anyone says, you are “actually Jewish.”

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