I should start by saying that I identify myself as being culturally Jewish and spiritually agnostic. That is to say, I don't really believe in God -- though I won't really speak in absolutes on that issue -- but I identify with the cultural aspects of the Jewish religion and continue to partake in many of the traditions.
I was raised to be a Conservative Jew, and went to a Solomon Schechter school in New York City, then another one in my suburb, throughout elementary school. I went to synagogue fairly regularly. I had a Bat Mitzvah. I adore my rabbi, and go to shul unprompted whenever I'm home. I celebrate and keep all of the major holidays, and, partially out of habit and partially for health reasons, I keep "kosher style," meaning I don't eat pork or shellfish and try to avoid mixing meat and dairy.
I'm from the Long Island and the Upper East Side originally, and now a suburban county that I believe has one of the highest Jewish populations in the nation. But right now I go to Penn State, and central Pennsylvania is a different animal than the New York Metropolitan Area.
In my hometown, we have several synagogues. The kosher aisle in the supermarket is more like three aisles. There are tons of churches, too, to be sure, but all of the businesses acknowledge Jewish holidays nearly equally. Everyone tosses around Yiddish slang and knows what Purim is.
In central PA, it's possible that I'm speaking to someone from somewhere in the state who has never met a Jew before. If they try to say "tuchus," let alone spell it recognizably, it'll probably make me laugh. They aren't necessarily bigoted in their ignorance, but there is a sense that Jews are an oddity. A sense that is alien to me.
While I've encountered very religious Christians of different varieties before, including Mormons, this is my most prolonged contact with them in the sense that where I live, in State College, there's an almost constant campaign to convert me. Whether it's be-suited men standing along College Avenue, handing out little tiny New Testaments, or a horrible gay conversion preacher screaming in front of the HUB (student union building), or Cru (Campus Crusade for Christ) actively trying to convert people who are just sitting around the Creamery, or in a student lounge, it's nearly constant.
For a while, it was a joke with my friends that I always seemed to sit within earshot of one particularly persistent girl with a distinctive laugh who was always sitting people down to talk about Jesus. I found it mildly irritating, because her braying laugh would cut through my concentration, and then I'd start hearing what she was saying and end up listening rather than working before long. Some of what she said was all well and good, but not my cup of coffee (I hate tea). Some of it made me wrinkle my nose in contempt.
I was as polite as one could possibly be to someone who was trying to thrust a little book into your hands as you rushed to class. "No, thank you," I'd say first, with a smile.
Then, if there were literally 10 men in suits lined up every few yards on College Avenue, I'd get increasingly impatient. Campus is big, and I was always in a rush. "No, thank you" became "No, thanks," then became ducking away, then became glaring, then became, "I've got a religion, thanks," and then became "I'm JEWISH," which then became "I'm Wiccan," because when I said I was Jewish they might say "It's the same God!" and I'd frown and say "Not exactly ... I don't think I believe in any trinities..." and move on, but when I said I was Wiccan they were stunned into silence and I could just keep going.
I never wanted to be overtly rude, because part of me at least thinks that they believe they are doing good work -- God's work. But I've since learned that many of them are paid to stand there handing out those little Bibles. I think that matters.
I've engaged in long debates with the nicer preachers, but the nasty homophobes, the ones who show up uninvited and scream with Bibles in hand, the regular crazy guy known as the Willard Preacher who stands outside the Willard building saying abhorrent things -- when I see them, I look around for the LGBTA group that's usually nearby, grab a rainbow flag and join the protest. Penn State's "We Are!" chant derives from "we ALL are," and is a message of tolerance. They are not us. We don't want them here.
Over the summer, while I was walking back down College Avenue to my apartment after a long day at my fellowship with the Obama campaign, I glanced down at my phone to check the time and was briefly distracted before I raised my gaze to look both ways before crossing a side street. There was a small group crossing in the opposite direction. A tall, slender, black man with an accent I couldn't identify for sure, but that might have been Nigerian. A shorter, dark-blonde haired woman with a soft expression. A blonde man with nondescript features whose height fell between theirs.
My quick glance as I was looking to my left to check that I could cross barely registered them, but as I was halfway across and turning my attention to a work-related e-mail I noticed when I checked the time, I noticed the black man was backpedaling and seemed to be talking to me, saying "Excuse me?" like it was a question.
"Yes?" I answered, smiling politely and slowing. They backtracked and joined me on the opposite curb.
The accented man was holding a book. It wasn't a leather-bound Bible, may not have been a Bible at all. I couldn't see the title.
He started saying something like, "I saw you were just looking at your phone, and I just wanted to ask if you have a moment to talk about Jesus Christ."
My heart sank a little, because I wasn't too surprised, but I was hoping I'd be wrong. Really, it was Friday evening! Dusk was casting a midnight bluish hue onto everything beyond the warm yellow circles of the streetlamps. It was after 8:30. I was exhausted from too much sun, hunger and stress. But part of the fellowship required me to approach strangers on the sidewalk and ask if they needed to register to vote, as well as call strangers, and I know it's difficult to do. And it doesn't make anyone feel good to be rude.
So I sighed a little and straightened, looking into the man's eyes. He couldn't be too much older than me. I was then 18; he and his friends were probably about 22.
He tried to say that the woman had something to say to me, but she balked and told him to say it instead.
When he asked if I knew Jesus, I simply shook my head and politely said "No, I'm Jewish, and I'm quite satisfied with my religion, thank you," and made as if to go on. I bit back a snappy "Does this ever work, on anyone?" and smiled a smile that I knew didn't reach my eyes.
A lot of the usual followed. There was lots of "Well, God is love, and you believe in love, don't you? When you feel love for your sister, that is God."
Increasingly annoyed, I quipped, "You might not want to use sisters as an example of love. I've got three younger ones, and they're not terribly easy to like a lot of the time."
We talked about his disbelief that I'm Jewish and have been to Israel (he can't wait to go) but don't believe in God. I tried the explanation I gave you, reader, earlier. I added that I believed I was living my life the way they'd want me to, even in the absence of God. I was working to help others, trying to be nice, giving to charity. I just did so not by praying, but by doing quantifiable things, like registering new voters.
Sounding slightly pained at what I realized sounded like my attempt to defend myself, the young woman said that "Nobody is trying to make you change how you live your life."
They repeatedly asked if I liked what I saw around me.
"What, College Avenue, right now? Campus? Society? The world? No, I don't like everything I see. But I'm working to change things for the better."
"Permanent change, though?" asked the blonde young man, speaking for the first time. He'd spend the past few minutes shuffling around the perimeter looking alternately uncomfortable that I was being buttonholed on a street corner and bored.
"What -- no, of course not!" I retorted. "Change isn't permanent! That's an oxymoron. Change is constant. It isn't stable."
The young woman raised her eyebrows, startled at my answer. The accented man gave a surprised sound and smiled, "May I ask you -- what is your profession?"
"I don't know. I came to study animal science, horses, specifically, but I'm probably changing it to something related to TV production and journalism." (A decision and a change I have since made.)
There was some more quoting Jesus saying things no good human being could rationally disagree with, me nodding, and him saying, "You know who said that? The man Jesus Christ," as if I'd just say "Ohhh, I didn't know Jesus was awesome! I'm completely on board now."
There was more "God is love," and them trying to get me to agree that I'd try to experience it.
"But I do!" I finally said. "I have. The purest, best example of what you're talking about -- truly selfless love -- I feel that, I feel that for my horse! I love him more than I love myself. I would do anything, put myself in harm's way, to protect him. His well-being and happiness are more important to me than my own. There is nothing I wouldn't do for him!"
I was surprised to find that I was verging on tears. It wasn't anger, or tiredness, or sadness, but just the overwhelmingness of articulating those feelings. I faltered.
"And does he love you back?" asked the young woman.
I'm not crazy. He's a horse. He can't feel in the same way that humans can. But I do know that his nickered greeting, his trusting obedience, his choice to come stand and walk beside me without a rope, his resting his head on my shoulder and nudging my side -- all of these things mean that I'm part of his herd. "Yes," I said simply.
"What if you try that with humans?" she said.
"I do. Animals are easier. But I have family, friends I feel that way about."
"Good!" said the black man. "Then you have already experienced Jesus."
I was irritated, feeling that my experience was being taken away from me by labeling it with something that isn't mine.
"Look," I said. "I can't really believe in God. Either God is not omnipotent, and then isn't really much of a God, or he is omnipotent and chooses to do nothing, in which case he's an a--hole. But I live the way you want me to anyway. I do the right thing, most times. I have a strong moral code. I've got tradition and community. If you want me to walk away from here tonight believing in God, that's not going to happen. But I am going to walk away and try to be a good person. Can't that be enough? Can't I do this without being part of an organized religion that is responsible for spreading so much hatefulness?"
"We haven't been hateful, have we?" he asked.
"No, but then, I haven't said that I'm gay. Maybe if I did, that'd change."
The young woman looked pained again. "So many people have been hurt by all that hate."
"Yes," I said. "You guys, you seem like nice people. I ... admire the conviction of your belief. Part of me is jealous of it, even. But it's not for me."
The woman was almost apologetic then, saying, "I know you're going to go away from here and be like, 'Oh my God, this was so weird...'" she said, miming texting.
I shook my head. "No, " I said solemnly. "I won't."
"We'll pray for you," she said, eyebrows knitted together in that pained, soft expression. She really did seem nice. I was glad not to have been rude to her.
The men thanked me for speaking with them and echoed her. "We'll pray for you tonight," she repeated.
I shook my head and chuckled wryly. "Hey, if I'm right, it can't hurt!" I said, beginning to walk away. I stopped, turned for a moment. "And if you're right, maybe it'll even help," I said, on my way again now.
I passed an older couple on a bench nearby who made eye contact with me and smiled sympathetically, as if they'd heard everything and approved of my conduct.
On the rest of the way home, I did think about it. But my frustration grew. Why does anyone think it's their right to impose on people like that? Sure, I did a similar thing with voter registration and campaign calls, but I do think there's a difference. And sure, I let them, but I had to if I didn't want to be rude.
Part of me was purely angry. For millenia, Jews have starved, fought and died to avoid converting. Fought for the right not to be Christian. To practice openly. And here were these people, stopping me on my way home, basically implying that I was wrong and needed to be saved or fixed? How dare they?
A softer part of me did admire their conviction, and knew that in their minds they were helping.
I'll never convert to Christianity. And honestly, I'll probably only be happy living in an area with a high Jewish population. And probably in one of the "godless liberal" areas, like NYC again or the Bay Area.
Before you try to convert someone -- which is something Jews never do, in fact, quite the opposite -- consider this. Consider what it's like on the receiving end. Think of how it can be not just annoying, but insulting.
And above all, think about what the purpose you are trying to achieve is, and whether it's really done for you already.
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