Judaism: Day 3 – The Unexpected Benefit of Standing Out

Judaism is not a proselytizing religion, which means they don’t actively seek converts. You need to be born to a Jewish mother, or go through a rigorous conversion process that will weed out those who aren’t serious about converting.

For this reason, I wasn’t sure how welcome I would be to the community.

Christianity is a very universal religion that actively recruits people to the faith. I never felt unwelcome at Mass during my Catholic month. This probably had something to do with the fact that I didn’t stand out too much. Catholicism isn’t linked to an ethnic heritage. The rituals were conducted in English, so I could read along and say the words with everyone else.  I blended in enough that my presence didn’t raise too many eyebrows.

This isn’t true at Minyan. It’s very obvious that I’m not Jewish. I’m a young, half-Asian guy who can’t read Hebrew and just started attending the synagogue. Of course I stand out.

Unexpectedly, this has been incredibly helpful.

Because I stand out, people have been very curious about me and want to talk to me. When I tell them about my project, all of them immediately become very helpful.

They give me book recommendations, explanations of various Jewish rituals, and even invitations to dinner!

If I wasn’t an obvious outsider, if I just blended in, they wouldn’t bother. They would probably just assume I knew what was going on. I would miss out on all sorts of wonderful resources.

I’m just guessing, but I think members of exclusive communities feel the need to present their community in a positive light. Because it’s not accessible to outsiders, the community or group is likely to be misunderstood. As such, it’s incumbent on the members of the community to help the outsiders understand the group as much as possible.

Though there is a long tradition of rules and prescriptions for how Jews should interact with non-Jews, I believe the desire to represent your group well is a fundamentally human one.

When I was in NROTC, our instructors emphasized that because we were members of the military, our actions would directly impact the military’s reputation. If we behaved like jackasses in public while in uniform, people would think the military is an institution that promotes jackassery. The lesson? Don’t be a jackass in public. Preferably, never be a jackass.

When you are a member of a group you value, you naturally want to represent that group in a positive light and correct any misunderstandings that outsiders may have about your group.

Think about a time when you’ve been in a position where you’ve had to defend your association with some group. Maybe you’re in a bocce ball league and you’re only 25 and someone asks you, “isn’t bocce just for old French people?”

You would then feel compelled to explain all the benefits of being in a bocce ball league. It’s relaxing, a good way to spend time outside, a good way to socialize, etc. You might even give the ignoramus a few book recommendations and invite him to participate in a bocce ball game.

In my case, I’m the ignoramus, and my new Jewish friends are doing their best to give me the best explanation possible of all their strange rituals and beliefs.