There is an age-old question that frequently nags at us along our journey of life: “Who am I?” I’ve struggled with it, and perhaps you have as well. When you ask yourself “Who am I?” you probably start by listing superficial things about yourself. In my case, I’m from Argentina, I play music, and people say I have a great sense of humour. Even though I always knew who I was on the surface, a deeper layer eluded me. There is still more to learn about myself.
When I was young, well, younger than now, I constantly pressed my father with the similar question that was scrambling in my head: “Who are we?” I was trying to find a simple way to get my answer, to avoid spending my own time navigating the question so I could do something (seemingly) more productive, like playing video games. I figured that, by asking my dad, I may very well be who he is, given I’m his son, an extension of him, in many ways. But, every time, my father would reply in the same cryptic way and always with a smile on his face: “Son, we are Jews.”
I was never quite able to comprehend why he couldn’t just give me a plain answer, rather than that infuriating, puzzling and annoying explanation. I was not going to give up and, with my insistent character, I continued asking. I posed the question from different angles, wanting him to elaborate, but he would just say, “Uriel, it’s simple. We are Jews. You and I are solely Jews.”
When my dad couldn’t satisfy my curiosity, I turned to my school’s rabbi, Rabbi Stephen Berger. When I asked Rabbi Berger, his answer was just as confusing and mysterious. He kindly stated that he could not provide me with the answers I sought; I had to embark on this road of self-discovery myself, with the help of my loved ones. Then, about halfway through the year, he introduced me to StandWithUs Canada, an organization that would help me better understand who I was by putting me in touch with other Jewish teenagers from around the world.
I now realize why I couldn’t access a fast-food solution to a philosophical question. I finally found the answer I’d been seeking.
Last August, as I joined 190 of my peers from high schools throughout the United States and Canada at the StandWithUs conference in Los Angeles, I found myself on a path leading to enlightenment that has reshaped my understanding of Jewish identity. The sessions were informative and interesting, but it was when we reached the segment focusing on what Jews were before the dark chapters of persecution during the Holocaust – they were highly contributing members of society, and more – that everything started to click.
A single statement truly hit home: Jews have been forcibly expelled from about 109 countries throughout history. It was a stark reminder that, regardless of our accomplishments and contributions, we would always be seen as “Just a Jew.” It became clear that the essence of being Jewish transcended any specific occupation or societal role. We are a resilient and diverse community with a history of triumphs and tragedies.
This knowledge instilled a sense of pride in my identity, not as a limitation but as a source of strength and unity. Thanks to StandWithUs Canada, I learned that, at the end of the day, embracing who we are, with all our complexities and contributions, is a powerful testament to the enduring spirit of the Jewish people. I felt a sense of pride but a pride that could be taken away from me at any moment. This is when I decided to become a more invested member of the community by being on the board of NCSY, the Orthodox Union’s youth group.
Talking to politicians and people who can truly make a difference became an essential component of my advocacy. I understood how dialogue and education could change people’s perspectives.
My aim in sharing the history of the Jewish expulsions and the resilient spirit of our community is to raise awareness and foster understanding. My tool against bigotry and ignorance is teaching. I am committed, every day, to teaching people about the rich history of the Jewish people.
Uriel Presman Chikiar is in Grade 12 at King David High School and is a board member of NCSY.