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Jewish teens balance pride and safety when navigating public spaces

This article was produced as part of JTA’s Teen Journalism Fellowship, a program that works with teens across the world to report on issues that impact their lives.

(JTA) — After wearing his yarmulke all day at his Orthodox yeshiva on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Zac Jacobs takes it off before boarding the 6 train home.

 “I think it helps mitigate any potential danger that I could be in,” Jacobs, 17, said. “You never know what could happen; the trains are mostly safe, but it takes one person to push you into the tracks.” Besides, he said, he knows that God is above him.

With the 2022 increase in transit crime and with a rise in antisemitic hate crimes, many young Jews in New York City are scared to display their heritage in public settings. 

The violence hit close to home for Jacobs last November, when a man threw rocks at his school, Ramaz, damaging a window. It was the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass” when, in 1938, the Nazis orchestrated attacks on synagogues and Jewish businesses.

For some teens, showing their Jewishness publicly can make them feel self-conscious.

Sima Epstein,16, is always wary of whether people can see the star of David necklace she wears. 

“I probably wouldn’t hide it [my Judaism] in a situation or a conversation, but I wouldn’t let it come up” outside of school, said the  junior at Yeshivat Frisch,an Orthodox day school in Paramus, New Jersey. “I would avoid discussing religious topics all together.” 

Removing their yarmulke in public can be a tough call for a Jewish teen:  Halachah, or Jewish law, requires that males wear a head-covering in public. And while the Torah permits Jews to protect themselves when there is a possibility of harm, not all rabbis would agree that riding the subway presents the kind of danger that would allow someone to hide their Jewishness.

“If we are so concerned about appearing Jewish on the subway, what does that say about our ability to live in New York?” says Rabbi Aviad Bodner, a spiritual advisor at Ramaz. As an Orthodox rabbi and mentor, he often deals with students who have concerns about showing their identity in public. “I’m very troubled by the recent uptick [in antisemitism], and it is something we should all be considering when we make decisions.”

Instead of a yarmulke, Bodner wears a fedora-style hat everywhere he goes, so being visibly Jewish is not a concern for him, but he understands and empathizes with students worried for their safety. However, this doesn’t stop him from studying Jewish texts on his morning commute. 

He distinguishes between Jewish teens who are not wearing their kippot for safety reasons, and those who do not want to be viewed as “different” by the general public. 

“All teens desire to fit in, and sometimes showing off their cultural heritage is not the way to be seen as popular, especially on college campuses, with antisemitism rising,”  says Bodner. Day school students in particular are more likely to encounter antisemitic attitudes or anti-Israel hostility at college than they are in their parochial schools.

For Oren Leitner, 16, the issue is personal. A junior at the Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck, New Jersey, Leitner was verbally attacked on the subway as an elementary school student. He was with his older brother and both wore kippot. “He started talking/screaming about how Christianity is the right religion and how we should not be Jewish,” Leitner said. “I was really young at the time, and I did not understand what was going on and was very scared.” 

This and other antisemitic instances shaped his Jewish identity. Although in all other areas of his life, he wears his kippah proudly, on the subway he covers it up with a hood. 

How Jewish he can look and act in public is a concern for Leitner as he considers applying to college. “It is a risk I would be willing to take if I end up going to one [that is not Jewishly affiliated]. But it is a factor my family and I will have to take into account,” he said.

Emy Khodorkovsky takes the opposite approach. He fights antisemitism by never hiding his Jewishness. “The only way we can combat Jew hatred is by being proud of our heritage,” the 16-year-old said. He understands why some of his friends decide not to display their Judaism openly. He also used to remove his yarmulke on the subway but not since the Ramaz junior became active in his school’s Israel advocacy club and recently attended the Anti-Defamation League’s “Never Is Now” summit on antisemitism.  

“I was worried, like other people are, about getting attacked, but then I realized that we can not shy away from showing our beliefs just because others do not like it,” he said. He thinks about his parents who escaped antisemitism in the former Soviet Union for a better life for their children.

Khodorkovsky has never experienced aggression on the subway, and is unruffled by the curious looks he gets when he carries his lulav and etrog on Sukkot or his tefillin bag to school. “New York is a big place, and there are stranger things to look at than a kid carrying a palm tree,” says Khodorkovsky. 


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