The stereotypes, the jokes, the misconceptions. Phoebe Ellis has heard it all.
Growing up Jewish hasn’t always been easy for Ellis, a sophomore from Beldenville, Wis. To her, the biggest challenge is remaining true to her faith while being exposed to social stigmas surrounding Judaism.
“Everybody thinks I keep Kosher. Everybody thinks I need to cover my body. Everybody thinks I need to wear a yarmulka,” she said. “And everybody assumes it’s OK to make jokes about the Holocaust. Not puns, but really bad, offensive jokes. And I don’t care if you’re Jewish or not, they aren’t OK to tell.”
Ellis said she’s “observant” about her religion, but doesn’t follow every tenet — like lighting candles every Shabbat — as elders might expect. To her, the most important component of Judaism is being invested mentally.
“I am aware of all of the laws,” Ellis said. “I try to be educated about my religion. I’m more spiritual and knowledgeable than anything else.”
How do you practice your faith?
I practice by learning and (focusing on) anything I find meaningful. I don’t agree with all customs and don’t follow all customs. But I strive to learn more and try everything to know if it is meaningful to me or not.
What’s your earliest memory of being religious?
I’m going to say about fourth grade. That’s when my religion started to mean something to me. That’s when it stopped being a matter of me going to religious school and _wanting_ to go to religious school.
What changed then? Why did it change from having to go to Temple versus wanting to go?
I suppose that was the time when I started to know about youth group events and discovered there was a world outside the classroom that still had to do with my religion. Also, fourth grade was the year when one of my very close friends questioned her religion to the point of leaving Judaism completely for almost four years. But I was, and am, friends with her. So while talking to her about her decision, I ended up starting to think what my religion really meant to me.
What Jewish values are most important to you?
All the mitzvahs (good deeds), the Torah mentions. One in particular has been striking to me lately. The mitzvah is “do not destroy.” It originates in a story of war. The original mitzvah is “do not destroy the fruit trees” so that the world could begin again post-war. I really like the social action push within the Jewish Community as well.
What’s your favorite tradition that you practice?
Fasting on Yom Kippur. It reminds me of suffering everywhere and … puts things back in perspective.
Who has had the biggest impact on you while growing up Jewish?
Those older than me. The older kids who took Judaism and made it relatable to me. The youth advisors who gave us the freedom to do what we wished when we planned our services. But a lot of my Jewish discovery has been self-exploration. It was guided by my community, but I had to go out and find my faith for myself.
How do you define the role that faith plays in your life?
It doesn’t hold me back from being logical. I believe in evolution. I understand that the stories in the Torah didn’t happen exactly like that. I understand the difference between make believe and truth. But my Rabbi once said that science says how something happened, and religion says why it happened. That’s the closest I’ve gotten to any sort of concrete belief I have.
Are you allowed to challenge peers who disagree with not following beliefs specifically from the book?
I believe that all beliefs should be challenged. If they aren’t, how do you know what you really believe in and what you just believe because somebody told you so? I don’t agree with everything my Rabbi tells me, but I’m a better Jew for actually taking the time to find that out about myself.
What would you say to someone who might accuse you of “not really being Jewish” because you adapt your beliefs?
Personally, I think it’s offensive to tell anybody they’re any less of a Jew than someone else as long as they practice. (Faith) is individual to everybody. While I have found practicing best while in a community of my peers, a friend of mine connects individually and doesn’t participate in those type of events. As long as you’re putting the effort in and getting something out of it, I would call that Judaism.