Diversity Dialogue: Being a Jew at GVSU

By Gabriel Hessenthaler | 12/4/16 11:08pm

Editor's note: This column is a part of the Lanthorn's Diversity Dialogue series, which gives students who identify as part of a minority population the platform to tell their stories of what life is like as a Laker.

Being a Jew at Grand Valley State University was extremely challenging at first.

I grew up in a neighborhood where there were at least seven synagogues within a two-mile radius of where I lived, with Kosher markets, bakeries, and, in general, Jews nearby. My neighborhood was 40 percent Jewish, and we always got the Jewish holidays off during the school year.

I’ve been all over the world, but coming to school in West Michigan was one of the biggest culture shocks I’ve ever experienced. It felt like I was the only Jew at the school, even though that wasn’t true. Many of us were there, we just blended in with the rest of the students at the school, and for the most part went unnoticed.

Being darker skinned, I honestly felt very out of place in the primarily Dutch area of the 616. A majority of my friends ended up being international students, the students from the Muslim Student Association and people from other minority backgrounds.

For me, being Jewish is more than just religion. It is having a shared history, culture, ethnicity and experience which others from your background can relate to. If there were more Jews on campus when I was a freshman, I wouldn’t have been so involved in Hillel, the Jewish student organization, as I was. It was my duty to represent my community here and become an ambassador of the Jewish community at GVSU.

I always wondered if I would get any anti-Semitic comments from people, especially being in a predominantly non-Jewish area, but I met people from West Michigan who went to Israel with their church, and probably knew the Torah way better than I did. They were interested in our customs, and why we did certain things. I related back to the Bible, because it was something many of my Christian friends knew, and to them it made sense, because these were festivals that Jesus would have observed and celebrated.

As a member of a minority population, it is my duty to present who Jews are in a respectful manner, and anyone who met me would know that I am a nice person, I believe in tolerance of others, and I have a serious respect and love for my people. I may get dirty looks from strangers, but everyone who I meet seems to be respectful of who I am, my background, and are willing to hear my story and learn about what it means to be a Jew. 

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