For many Jewish parents, the challenges they face raising their children include choosing between Jewish and public schools, planning bar and bat mitzvahs, and staying sane while planning big Shabbat dinners. But for parents raising Jewish children in rural areas like me, without a cohesive community around them, just having our identity recognized and honored by neighbors is often the first challenge.
Maine thinks of itself as a homogenous state. Despite increasing populations of immigrants from around the world, particularly Somalia, and despite thriving Jewish communities in 10 areas, the prevailing mindset, particularly in the small towns and rural areas, is that Maine is lily-white, with the most exotic influences coming from our robust French Canadian populations.
So I was pleasantly surprised this past winter to receive an invitation to speak at the Maine Conference for Jewish Life, a fairly new event on Colby College’s tidy green campus. Based on my writing for this esteemed website, the organizer, Rabbi Rachel Isaacs, a Colby professor and chaplain, invited me to speak about how important it is to change that lily-white mindset and highlight diversity.
I spoke on the final day of the conference. I missed Lois Lowry(!)’s keynote address, which I heard was amazing, but attended a presentation on the Documenting Maine Jewry project. It drove home just how scattered the Maine Jewish population is—there were 10 active Jewish communities identified in the state, with just 16 synagogues.
After lunch, I sat down in a plush leather chair at the head of an enormous conference table. Eight other women, plus my husband, sat around the table with me. I told the story of my family, my ancestors escaping wave after wave of European anti-Semitism by moving to America, to the cities and then the suburbs, working as peddlers and store owners and doctors and lawyers as the generations stayed and thrived.
I told the story of my parents meeting, friends introducing them because they were “short, funny, and Jewish,” and of their unlikely move to Oklahoma and then rural Maine. I told the story, as I have here on Kveller, of the ignorance in rural Maine that fuels teasing and bullying based on whatever difference a person admits, and to the unwitting exclusion perpetuated by classroom Christmas parties and chorus songs about Jesus.
I talked about how it might seem easier to hide one’s identity, but when diversity isn’t acknowledged, those inclined to use the language and symbology of hate have carte blanche, because they assume no one within earshot will be hurt. I talked about how good it felt to no longer be an ambassador for Judaism when I went to college and then graduate school, and I talked about how it felt to resume that role upon moving to an island off the coast of Maine.
Heads nodded around the table. I heard small sounds of sympathy. I talked about my daughter, the island’s first Jewish child, and how I am arming our friends to be able to defend her if needed, to speak knowledgeably about what it means to be Jewish, how I’ve shared our holidays with them in hopes that they can be our advocates.
When I was done telling my story, the women around the table shared theirs. Most had raised or were raising Jewish children in small Maine communities. Ignorance and exclusion were common themes, but there were triumphs, too: a young boy standing up to a bully; a vice principal considerate of scheduling testing on the Sabbath; a “Christmas in July” parade float revamped to include all the winter holidays. Small victories, adding up to patches of light shining where before there had been darkness.
Even Maine’s smallest towns are home to the whole palette of humanity. My hope, and the hope of all of those seated around the table that afternoon, is that everyone speaks up about who they are—their race, religion, sexuality, gender, everything—and makes diversity a vibrant piece of Maine’s culture, and of small communities around the country.
When the majority sees the minority around them, teaching, building, cooking, and growing up with their kids, ignorance turns to knowledge and acceptance, and everyone is enriched. Parents whose children are empowered with the confidence and courage to highlight, rather than hide, the thing that makes them unique will help open everyone’s eyes to the beautiful diversity around them.