09/18/2013 10:52 am ET Updated Nov 18, 2013

The More Things Change, the More They Remain the Same

As a former Miss America judge, this year viewing the nation's quintessential beauty pageant from the comfort of my family room on my flat screen television, I felt what most of my friends felt -- we HAVE a winner...

Watching the obviously ethnic newly-crowned Miss America, Nina Davuluri, confidently strut her stuff this past Sunday in Atlantic City, filled me with a wave of nostalgia. I loved her costumed homage to her Indian heritage in her "Bollywood" dance and her thoughtful answers during the interview portion of the program. This girl "gets" it, I thought, she's a standout! I was filled with a wave of nostalgia.

But I wasn't reflecting back so much on my time as a judge as I was on my time as a contestant. Flashback to another ambitious and talented hopeful -- me! Not to sound boastful, but I was a budding beauty in my youth, crowned Miss Teenage Michigan -- proud to sing Matchmaker in my "Fiddler" shmata, wear my Chai, and deliver clever answers to tricky history questions about Napoleon Bonaparte. The national Miss Teenage America Pageant that year was held in the huge Tarrant County Convention Center in Dallas Fort Worth. The eventual winner, Melissa Babish, was as American as apple pie. While I wore a peasant costume and danced with a scarf on my head, she wore pigtails, a sailor suit and sang Honey Bun from South Pacific. She won and I was a runner up. No sour grapes, but I've often wondered if being a perceived minority played a part. Especially when the singing cadets from Texas A&M were our dance partners on television and yet none of them chose to take Miss Teenage Ohio (who was black), Miss Teenage Arizona (who was Native American) or Miss Teenage Michigan (who was Jewish) to the pageant ball as their date.

But that was in the last millennium, civil rights was still incubating -- so maybe there was cultural rationalization, as inane as that behavior was. But over the past weekend, Ms. Davuluri received some rather disturbing hate email and hurtful social network postings, for celebrating her heritage and diversity at the pageant. My initial reaction -- "Are they kidding? This is 2013, for Pete's sake! Who are these bigoted idiots?" But as I thought about it, I realized that despite the tremendous strides that have been made celebrating diversity in all its forms -- gender, religion, ethnicity, sexuality - xenophobia will never disappear. It's a deeply human flaw and some people will always be fearful, and therefore, antagonistic, towards others who they perceive are different. And shame on them! They have no idea what they're missing. So, while I almost feel sorry for them, we cannot give that sort of behavior a significant platform of recognition. Ms. Davuluri is extremely intelligent, poised, passionate, (and, needless to say, beautiful). I am thrilled that she will be representing the young women of this country over the coming year.

As I observed the Jewish High Holy Days last week, I was amazed at the number of inter-faith and mixed-race families in my congregation, all praying for a peaceful and joyful New Year... it was inspiring, to say the least. We've come a long way since the world was electrified when an outstanding Jewish girl named Bess Myerson was crowned Miss America in 1945. I pray for the time when no one will think twice when a brilliant and beautiful woman of any heritage is recognized for absolutely anything.