Through the Lens of a Jewish Upbringing, Strengthening Her Identity

By Pailey Feakes / Special to the BJV

This column is adapted from remarks delivered by Pailey Feakes on June 5 when accepting Temple Anshe Amunim’s Kelm Scholarship. She has been a member of the Pittsfield congregation since pre-school and is now a a rising junior at Skidmore College, where she studies psychology, political science, and dance. Her Jewish journey has been helped along by Jewish Federation of the Berkshires’ support of her Hebrew school, overnight camp experiences, and Israel scholarship.

When I went off to college I had a deep sense of my Jewish identity. During high school, I helped lead Temple services with the religious school and participated in community service projects with our youth group. I was immersed in Judaism at Camp Eisner both as a camper and counselor. I also traveled to Israel and other parts of Europe learning about Jewish history with my camp friends. Experiences like these helped me learn to love and accept my Jewish identity.

However, going off to college I was faced with the opportunity to shape my identity independently. I’m able to make my own decisions on how to express different parts of my identity as a Chinese Jewish adoptee, and how I might continue to strengthen it. Although the transition to college was challenging my freshman year, I was able to take lessons I had learned through my involvement in the Jewish community at home and incorporate them on campus.

Being a camp counselor and a teacher assistant for the Temple’s Hebrew classes taught me to be a role model for the younger members of the community. At college, I volunteered to host a prospective student of color, giving them a tour of the school and sharing an overnight dorm living experience. Also sharing Shabbat dinners and rituals at Hillel helped me develop a sense of community and belonging in a new and different place.

Since I was familiar with the college environment during my sophomore year, going back to school this year was not as challenging. I wanted to continue doing what worked best for me the previous year while making sure that I was still exposing myself to new things and learning more about myself. This past school year, not only did I become more comfortable and content with who I am, I made more friends, stepped out of my comfort zone and made the most out of my college experience.

This also allowed me to put myself out there and share a sense of belonging in multiple friend groups and student organizations. As I worked on worrying less about how other people perceived me, I was able to focus on myself and what I wanted to achieve during my time at Skidmore. Looking back on the school year I was most proud of how I kept busy, staying efficient with my school work while maintaining a balanced social life. Both have been imperative to strengthening different parts of my identity.

One of my favorite courses I took in the spring semester was called Middle Eastern Politics. I decided to take the course because besides having prior knowledge about Israel through Temple and camp, I wanted to more fully understand the major issues that the region has been experiencing. Because Western media does not always give us the full lens of international politics, we tend to make negative generalizations of groups of people that differ from our own. The most important thing I have learned from the course is that the Middle East is a lot more complex than I had assumed as there is a significant amount of political, economic, social, and cultural diversity throughout the region. Just because the majority of a region shares the same religion/ language does not mean that all practice it in the same way or have extremist views.

The course made me think more deeply about the power of stereotypes and how they have been used against many minority groups, including Jews. Once the pandemic began and we were sent home to complete the semester with remote online classes, I, like most students, was disappointed to leave school. At home, I’ve had a lot of alone time to reflect on what is happening in the world, how it relates to what I have been studying at school, as well my own racial and religious minority status as an Asian and a Jew. This issue of stereotypes has become prevalent to me once again as some people began to blame Chinese people as the cause of the coronavirus. Even though I have not personally experienced or seen any hate crimes against my race, I have started to feel self-conscious in public.

When we are exposed to uncomfortable situations or unfamiliar or different groups of people, we tend to categorize things to make things simpler. During times of crisis, people tend to use their fear to incite hatred toward a particular group. In my psychology, anthropology, and political science courses we have studied this topic of stereotyping and how we are all hardwired to make stereotypes even when we don’t mean to. It is important to realize that we all make them and question why we create them because when we make stereotypes and shy away from uncomfortable situations, we miss out on learning about different opinions, experiences, and truths.

While it feels easy and safe to have a group of friends and community similar to you, if we are going to have a stable, diverse, and democratic country, people need to be willing to open themselves up to different things.

This is a scary time of uncertainty, where things feel like they are falling backwards. I don’t know what to make of it all yet, where it will lead, or what answers or ways forward will emerge. However each of us has a role we can take part in to ensure a hopeful future. I look forward to going back to campus and learning about and discussing these issues with my friends, classmates and professors.