“If she’s Jewish, is she American?” I’ve been avoiding the question of my faith, but Bret, one of the other WorldTeach volunteers at my school, has been telling her students what I am (not sure how I feel about her “outing” me, but whatever). The opening quote is a real response from a student when Bret informed her of my religious status.
One of the hardest things about being in this country is not being able to practice my faith. Granted, I am not the most observant Jew in the world (I love bacon, and shellfish, especially together... with cheese) but at home a Jew is not that big a deal. Most people at least vaguely know what they are, and they don’t care that much. Almost every supermarket has kosher products, and at all the major holidays, they have specialty items geared towards their yehudim customers.
Before I even came here, I struggled to decide what I would do. The idea of hiding who I am was not something that appealed to me, but what little I did know about American Samoa led me to believe that those few who even knew what a Jew was would NOT consider it a positive thing. This country is a Christian country. There is at least one, if not three churches every 100 feet or so of road. There are 5 times as many churches as schools; a wide range of the Christian denominations are present. There is the London Missionary Society, the Congregationalists, the Mormons (so many Mormons!), Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. If you ask a Samoan what religion they are, they will list one of those. It doesn’t even cross their mind to say Christian- to them, is the only religion there is. Islam some have heard about- mostly through the mirror of the war. Ask a Samoan about Islam, and most think its followers a) don’t believe in God b) have more than one God or c) they believe in Jesus too right?
Judaism enters even less. Although one might think that through the process of Sunday school, Jesus’ original faith might have come up, from what can tell, it is not a common topic of discussion. Most of my kids think (duh) Jesus was Christian. To them, anyone who is not Christian is just not worth anything. They are automatically wrong in whatever views they have, they deserve very little respect, and they are going to hell. Period. I know it seems like I am exaggerating, but I promise you- I am not. It is one of the most shocking things I have experienced since I arrived. There is not even religious tolerance between the Christian denominations. Everyone is not sure whether the other is Christian enough to be saved. One of my students flat out told me that she wasn’t really sure if Catholics were actually Christians. The idea that they would accept me is next to impossible, especially as I am already an outsider to them.
Ultimately I decided not to make my religion known. Classroom management, respect, obedience are hard enough with my white skin- I felt that adding a strange belief system to the mix would only decrease my ability to teach my students, which I told myself, was why I came here. Ultimately, I think my choice was correct, if difficult, but I never expected the toll that all of this would take on me. I certainly never expected to be excited to return home and go to Friday night services and listen to Rabbi Beifield’s too long sermons…. But I can’t wait! I can’t wait to be able to crack jokes and be understood, to not feel awkward when someone asks, “what church do you go to?” to visit the AEPi chapter and WM, and to wear a Jewish star necklace. I also want to go to Israel even more now- I feel like my soul needs a little bit of a refreshing. I need to feel like part of the Jewish community again.
All in all, it has been an eye opening experience. I never expected so much religious hostility on American soil- but I do feel that the experience has better prepared me for future instances in which my particular religion may be threatened or questioned.