The author overlooking the Negev desert during a class trip to David Ben Gurion's grave.
While I don’t look like the kind of girl who crosses herself regularly and accepts Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior, I go to school with many students who do. I’m a Jewish girl attending a Catholic high school. Four years ago, I made the transition from a primarily-Jewish public school to the Catholic St. Thomas Aquinas. I had to start wearing a plaid skirt, collared shirt and Skechers uniform shoes. You can only imagine how many stereotypical jokes I am told every day. For instance, just last week someone asked me if I speak Jewish. The answer is “No, we speak Hebrew.” I am one of a handful of practicing Jewish students in the student body of 2,500, and I am proud.
My parents sent me to Catholic school because the public high schools near my house were overpopulated, not safe and did not offer a great education. St. Thomas Aquinas has an exceptional educational system, ranks nationally in sports and is well respected by colleges — three components that drove my parents to send my brother, sister and me there for school.
Making the transition wasn’t easy. Most of the students have been attending Catholic school their entire lives. One of the required courses is a theology class in which we study the Catholic faith. I had never even opened a Bible prior to my first day of freshman year. I felt like an outsider trying to learn about a religion completely different from my own. I went to Catholic school by day and Hebrew school by night.
During the summer after my junior year, I attended Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI). I attended this program to get a better understanding of my religion and learn about my Jewish roots. During that summer I met the most amazing people. I became more aware of my homeland, Israel, and felt the most Jewish I have ever felt. (Photo: Alexis Cassuto, left, with friends from AMHSI.)
I lived in the Rapaport Dorm with 42 of my new best friends. My classmates were from all parts of the United States, including Minnesota, Georgia, Pennsylvania, New York, California, as well as from Russia and Turkey. My friend Helen is from Ethiopia. Her birth parents died of AIDS so she was left orphaned at a very young age. Two lovely people, Helen’s new parents, decided to adopt her and five more children from Ethiopia and Bulgaria, adding to their already large family of four kids. At the age of 6, Helen moved to Atlanta to live with her new 11-person family.
On a free weekend, Helen and I went to visit some of Helen’s family’s Ethiopian friends. They lived in a huge community of people who spoke English, Hebrew and Amharic. They welcomed us into their homes with open arms and fed us a lot of unique Ethiopian food. Our host family made us homemade injera, an Ethiopian spongy flatbread, Helen’s favorite. Learning from all of these people and seeing how welcoming they were to complete strangers really opened my eyes to the importance of acceptance no matter where you come from or who you are. That was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
At AMHSI we learned on the main campus in Hod Hasharon, but we also lived on the bus (albeit one without a bathroom) as we toured the country. A normal “tiyul” (outing) would start with being woken up by one of my favorite teachers, Yossi Katz. With his raspy, Philadelphia-accented voice, he would shout “Boker Tov!” over the intercom.
My favorite tiyul was when we hiked a beautiful, lush mountain that led us to a cave. We put on our water shoes and turned on the lights on our helmets. Once we were inside the cave we were told to form a huge circle, put our arms around each other and turn off our lights. It was pitch black. We listened to my teacher, Alan, as water trickled from the walls of the cave. Alan explained how “one drop can do little, but many drops together can create wondrous things.”
He told us that “we are like drops.” Individually we can do little, but “together we can do so much more.” We sang “Hineh Ma Tov,” and the only sounds in the cave were our voices in perfect unison and the trickling water. It was so simple, yet so powerful. We all realized that together we are not drops of water, but a body of water, a whole, a family.
When it was time to go to the Western Wall I was so ready for it! I was going to put my note in, I was going to kiss the wall and it was going to be great. Before we went Alan said that if you don’t feel a connection or you just see a wall made of stones, that’s OK because that is what he felt his first time. Of course, that was exactly what happened to me. My friends were crying and I was waiting for the emotions to hit me like a brick wall. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen.
When people talk about Israel, they always talk about this feeling you get while in Israel. Their eyes light up and they smile from ear to ear as they point out the magnificent country that our ancestors called home. Before my trip, when I asked what Israel was like, I heard the same response every time: “Once you get there you will understand.” I didn’t really get it and was very annoyed.
One early morning we hiked Masada. I reached the top of the ancient mountain and was completely taken aback. I was speechless. It was then that I felt that feeling. I felt butterflies looking out and seeing the sun rise over the desert and the Dead Sea. It was invigorating. I understood what it meant to be completely and wholly Jewish and proud of that in every sense of the word. I am so glad that I had that experience on top of Masada, one of the holiest peaks in Israel. I will forever have that picture in my mind.
Being back at school over the past few months, things have definitely changed. Going to a Catholic high school has brought me closer than ever to my Jewish religion. I now share with my classmates my thoughts about Bible verses and my ideas from a Jewish point of view. I explain to them that most Jewish stereotypes are false. For example, not all of us have big noses or little hats that we wear to Temple or are cheap or consume bagels and lox on a daily basis.
I am not just Jewish. I am a survivor, a student, a community, a voice. I am the flag of Israel, I am your defense force’s jacket and I am the Jewish star necklace you wear around your neck. I am a proud Jewish woman who can maintain my Jewish identity in the toughest of times, even if that means going to a Catholic school every day of my life.