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“It was a privilege to grow up in a Jewish cultural milieu”

May 2024: As part of our celebrations to mark Jewish American Heritage Month, Chicago-based counsel Samantha Rozell shares her own experiences, and views on what it means to be Jewish in America.

I have always experienced American culture through a profoundly Jewish lens

My parents grew up in Jewish neighborhoods in New York City, and I was raised in a town with a large Jewish population. So, for me, as a child, America was a place filled with Jews. My friends and I went to Hebrew school at one of the many local synagogues multiple days per week. Public schools were closed on Jewish holidays. Many people (including me) had close relatives who survived Holocaust concentration camps.

It wasn't until I went to college that I realized that I'd been living in a bubble

It was a bit of a culture shock when I found myself in a community that was mostly non-Jewish for the first time. While this was a big change, it led me to connect with my culture and history in new ways. I found myself taking Jewish studies classes and learning about things I'd never been exposed to at Hebrew school or at home. With each class I took, I appreciated the richness and uniqueness of my culture even more.

Looking back now, I realize that it was a privilege to grow up in a Jewish cultural milieu, where education, critical thinking, hard work, and caring for your community and the world around you were highly valued. I try to live out these values in my own adult life.

I grew up observing certain Shabbat traditions with my family, which I still maintain today

Jews use a lunar calendar to track time, so all of our holidays begin at sundown. One of my favorite 'erev' (Hebrew for 'eve of') holiday celebrations happens every week on Shabbat. Every Friday night, we would light candles and recite the blessings over the wine and bread (called challah) to celebrate the beginning of the Jewish day of rest. My wife and I have started doing this together as well.

These traditions help me feel connected to my family and my culture

It's really cool to know that I am doing the same thing at the same time as millions of other Jews, and that I'm participating in a tradition that's been in place for thousands of years. This one simple thing makes me feel incredibly connected to my family and the rest of the Jewish people.

I've been thinking about my hopes for the future of Jewish culture, and the Jewish people in America

While this is always a topic of conversation, this is something that many people in our community have been thinking and talking about in greater depth in recent months. Many Jewish families (mine included) came to America with no money, fleeing violence and oppression, and hoping for a better life for themselves and their families. Against all odds, and in the face of discrimination in this country as well, they were able to do just that.

Now, more than ever, it is important to be proudly and visibly Jewish

Right now, America can be a scary place to be Jewish. Many spaces that have been enhanced by the richness of Jewish culture are now, in turn, making many of us feel marginalized. My sincere hope is that we can continue the work of our parents and grandparents, and continue to live out our values, grow and nurture our communities, and ensure that the roots they put down grow into a thriving legacy.