Young Voices:Student to student: Growing up Jewish in a Gentile world

By: Isaac Karp

Throughout my high school years at Binghamton, I met people of many diverse backgrounds. In my 10th grade AP physics class, I became good friends with Andrew Osburn, who also grew up on the West Side of Binghamton. His mother is Jewish and his father is Catholic. He grew up in an environment where Christianity was the dominant religion. However, he still found a way to learn about his Jewish faith. His mother made sure to instill Jewish teachings in him from an early age. Furthermore, until he completed his bar mitzvah, he regularly attended Temple Concord. Osburn accomplished much during his time in the Binghamton school district. Some of his major achievements include being president of National Honor Society and winning the Angelo Zucco Scholarship Service Award. He will attend Villanova University next year and is double majoring in mechanical engineering and business. Like many young Jews who grow up half Jewish in today’s society, he faces challenges of misunderstanding and exclusion. By looking at Osburn’s story, a microcosm of the issues we struggle with as a small-town Jewish community stand out. The following interview has been lightly edited.
Karp: Let’s begin by talking about your childhood. Do you want to speak a bit on growing up in the Binghamton area?
Osburn: I grew up on the West Side of Binghamton... on Mathews Street. I was in a neighborhood with a bunch of other kids my age growing up.
Karp: And they were mostly Catholic and Protestant?
Osburn: Yeah, I didn’t have any Jewish friends in my neighborhood... I went to Temple Concord since I was born, and the Jewish community at that temple specifically was mostly from Vestal, and it was really small still, but I think for my sister – she was a little bit older and there were more Jewish kids in her class, but, for me, there were only a few and they mostly lived in Vestal. So, the people I spent time with were mostly Christian. I mean my best friend at the time was Unitarian, so he was the closest thing to Jewish I had.
Karp: So, you grew up in a half Jewish household, but when were you first truly exposed to Judaism in a serious way?
Osburn: I think that the way I was brought up… I would always go to temple, I would learn Hebrew, I would go to Hebrew school. My weekends were especially centralized around my religion [Judaism].
Karp: That’s the same for me growing up, but I was attending a school with only Jews, whereas you were in public schools with barely any Jews.
Osburn: I don’t think there were any Jewish kids in my class until middle school.
Karp: Yeah and that’s kind of crazy because you grew up with this religion, but in the life you are experiencing most days, Judaism is not really present.
Osburn: I always remember how different I felt, especially around the holidays, when in class we would talk about Christmas and make Christmas decorations… and my classmates I think felt different from me because they would ask me about my holidays and I could tell they were confused and bored when I would tell them I made latkes and about my family’s traditions, but as kids you don’t understand... and it was harder for me to share my experiences as a result. I think this made my parents expose me more to Christianity, so I could assimilate with the other kids and know what they were experiencing.
Karp: It seems to me through my experience at Binghamton, and maybe yours as well, that there is an inherent ignorance to what Judaism really is as a religion and a culture within these public schools among students who are not Jewish. I mean classmates would constantly ask me: Do you celebrate Easter or Ramadan?
Osburn: I always got Kwanzaa! The biggest thing people ask me is how are you Italian? I thought you were Jewish. People sometimes box in what it means to look and be Jewish, which is frustrating.
Karp: Before you had your bar mitzvah you went to Israel. Can you talk about your experience in Israel and how it compares to here in relation to being Jewish?
Osburn: I remember that I went during my seventh grade year, which was really close to my bar mitzvah, and I took two weeks off from school to go to Israel. I had never seen so many Jewish people in my life. I thought there were a lot of Jewish people in my mother’s childhood community in Massachusetts, but, when I went to Israel, there were so many people who shared the same faith as me... it was like nothing I have experienced before and... it changed my view of Judaism.
Karp: That must have been eye-opening because at a young age it lets you know that there is a large community of people out there who share the same religion with you.
Osburn: Yeah, for me in Binghamton I felt isolated... which prevented me from being comfortable in my own faith.
Karp: Now let’s transition to how your faith influenced your education. I know throughout your school years you became enamored with science and computer engineering, topics which are secular to a great extent. Do you think that after your bar mitzvah there was a time where you [changed] your understanding of Judaism?
Osburn: I think after my bar mitzvah I became more disconnected from Judaism. I previously was forced to go to temple, but after my bar mitzvah, when it was more my decision how to interpret and practice my faith, I didn’t feel like I was truly accepted at temple and I didn’t really succumb to the traditional way of practicing Judaism.
Karp: This [is an] issue in small town America, where Jews go to schools dominated by other religions, and complete this intensive study period of the Torah and Hebrew leading up to their bar/bat mitzvah, [and] often feel like they have no reason to continue going to synagogue or are less inclined to go after they finish this ceremony. Why is this such a prevalent problem?
Osburn: It’s difficult to say because the timeline is at an interesting place. In Judaism, the coming of age is at 13 years old, but in American society it’s more around the 18-21-year-old range when people often begin making radical decisions for themselves. Since you are given this freedom at such a young age, for me, at least, it felt like I had done my duty as a young Jewish person. I feel like people often come back later because they miss out on the opportunity of being part of this community.
Karp: Not only for that reason, but also because they need to bring their children to synagogue to prepare them for their bar/bat mitzvah. It’s ironic in a way because a major point of the bar/bat mitzvah is to allow the student to involve themselves more within the religion, but it almost has the opposite effect in many cases.
Osburn: It’s almost like a natural progression, similar to a graduation from school. Once you complete this difficult task, many people feel as though they need to take a break, or they need to move on to another subject.
Karp: Very true. Moving on, another issue with young Jewish culture in places like Binghamton, is the lack of programs that allow us to explore our Judaism post-bar mitzvah.
Osburn: I mean me, and you, share a similar upbringing, but we didn’t even really connect until last year, which just shows the weakness of having a Jewish community within this secular public school system. There should be resources we can use to help us with maintaining our faith throughout our years at the high school. I know if I could be a resource to a younger Jewish kid when they enter the public school system, I would. This sort of program would be beneficial to everyone.
Karp: The funny part is that the Catholic youth programs are highly inclusive, they allowed me and you to play basketball and soccer with classmates at school we would see every day. They allowed us to assimilate into a community which we otherwise might feel excluded from.
Osburn: On those teams, the topic of faith wasn’t central, but it was part of it. There is a prayer before games, and there is the understanding of playing in a church, but it was more about living real life with religion being the basis, but not interfering. This may be a model the Jewish community can take from.
Karp: Speaking about models, one of your major influences is Albert Einstein. And while his secular accomplishments dominate his legacy, his Judaism always lurked in the background. How do you think people like him give you the chance to express yourself freely even on topics which may conflict with your faith?
Osburn: The way I was taught to always ask questions and apply my beliefs into real life situations gave me the chance to become a better student. Something for me which is important within Judaism is the expectation to use elements within religious teachings to solve modern problems.
Karp: Definitely. Now we’re almost done, so let’s take the chance to look back at your high school career. You are attending Villanova in the fall; can you reflect on the path it took for you to reach this point?
Osburn: It was less of climbing a mountain and more of riding a roller coaster, with all the ups and downs I faced. Along the way, I learned that it’s important to be secular, but know and appreciate what your religion is. Most of what I accomplished is attributed to the Jewish ideals of my upbringing. I also know that from the history of our people, perseverance is an essential part of being human.