Lately I think I am one of the few Jewish teenagers who really understands racism and prejudice. Like many other Jewish children, I attended Hebrew School where I learned the basics of Judaism and how to read Hebrew. At home my parents help nurture a proud Jewish identity in my brother, sister and me.
I spent eight summers at a Jewish overnight camp where I learned to live away from home with other people in a vibrant Jewish environment. During high school I became active in United Synagogue Youth (U.S.Y.), a Jewish youth group. The majority of my friends are Jewish. I had learned of anti-Semitism and prejudice, but since I was never directly affected, I could not understand how such things happen. After all, why would anyone want to offend or hurt someone else because of his/her race or religion? Today I realize that I am not the only one who does not know the answer to this question. In fact, neither do the prejudiced people.
This summer I had the chance to grow up. I was fortunate to travel to Poland and Israel on a U.S.Y. trip. I not only learned how to live on my own, but received an unexpected and disturbing lesson about the "real" world. We toured five Nazi concentration death camps during our stay in Poland.
At Treblinka, the last camp we visited, we met up with a group of young Polish children on a field trip. We arrived just as they were departing. I looked into their bus and saw many of them pointing their middle fingers at us. We heard them utter something with the word Jew in it. These were children, and this is how they are growing up. It did not seem to matter to them at all that they had just visited a site where hundreds of thousands of Jews had been killed. Where did they learn to hate Jews in a country with hardly any Jews at all? When they are older, they will probably pass their hatred for Jews down to their own children, as their parents have done for them.
One Saturday our group of sixty teenagers and nine staff toured downtown Kracow. A few of the more religious males in our group wore kippot (head coverings). It seemed that people on a typical Saturday night in Kracow either went to bars or sat in their apartment windows overlooking the streets. As we walked down the street, people spat on us and screamed, "Jews!" On one downtown street, a man took the leash off his dog which then chased us a few blocks. These people did not know us. All they saw was that we were Jewish. I still do not know why they think of us so poorly.
These experiences helped me realize just what prejudice is. People disqualify the talents and abilities of others based solely on differences like skin color, religion or culture. I can now better understand how hard it continues to be for women and Afro-Americans in our own culture. Sexism, racism, and prejudice cannot be eliminated simply by making them illegal. People have to recognize that ugly prejudices exist and need to be rooted out.
Until this past summer, I held the comforting, but naive belief that people are always fair. Sadly, I now realize that this is not always true. But what about others in the world? When will they grow up? n
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.