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Turning My Life Around

Turning My Life Around

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As a young Jewish boy growing up in an area with few Jewish families, I often felt confused about religion. I struggled to understand why my father had chosen to raise us away from the Jewish community, and as I grew older and it became clear that he was losing his faith, tension grew between us.

My father’s parents were originally European Jews who made their way to Israel to start a family after escaping the Holocaust. Eventually they immigrated to Canada for a brighter and safer future. Both of my grandparents lost more than half their families, including parents and siblings. Their stories of heroism and survival during the war fueled my Jewish pride. I truly wanted to excel and succeed, because I felt I owed it to all the Jews who had suffered and fallen, and even more so, for the Jews that survived.

I often felt confused about religionI truly enjoyed being Jewish, and I loved it when I had the opportunity to explain my faith to others. I actually reveled in being different.

My best friend, who lived next door, was not Jewish, but to us it made absolutely no difference. Oh, if only adults could be as innocent and non-judgmental as young children!

Unfortunately, some of our friends’ parents didn’t approve of our friendship, and told us we shouldn’t mix. As early as grade school, certain people spoke ill of us, particularly when holidays would come around and I’d spend X‑mas with his family, and he’d spend Chanukah with mine. But to us it was natural, the way things should be.

On one occasion, the two of us went to a birthday party. The birthday girl was Jewish, a friend of mine. Somehow the mother found out that my friend was not Jewish, and asked him to leave. When I tried to find out why he had to go, the mother said straight-out that “our kind shouldn’t mix with their kind.” Infuriated, I lashed out at her, took my buddy, and we both left immediately.

I could not understand how another Jewish person could act so wrongly towards another, and based solely on religion. I thought we were taught better than that. Until that moment I believed that all Jewish people were taught the same, believed the same, and acted the same. This incident was my first lesson in the difference between man and religion.

Around this time I began attending Hebrew school for two and a half hours every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. Some of my non-Jewish friends began to notice and ask where I was going. When I explained, they wanted to know why one school wasn’t good enough for me, and soon the teasing began.

I started to question religion, and didn’t enjoy being different anymore. We attended synagogue less and less, and my father reassured me that after my bar mitzvah it would be my choice whether or not to continue pursuing religion. How many 13-year-olds do you know who would chose Hebrew school and synagogue over sports and extra time with friends?

I found myself questioning the one thing I had always depended on—my Jewish faith. I would say my personal separation from religion began when I started seventh grade. I was starting junior high—a much bigger school, with even fewer Jewish kids than the one I had previously attended.

As soon as I arrived I was separated from all my old friends, and in my new class of 30 there were only three Jewish kids. I walked into the cafeteria and saw that all the students sat with their own “type.” Jewish kids probably comprised the smallest group, Asian kids sat elsewhere, Italian kids to the left, cool kids to the right and band geeks in the back. I wondered why we couldn’t sit wherever we wanted, and why someone would actually tell me to get up and go sit in the “Jew section” if I knew what was good for me.

I tried to discuss it with my father, but he barely had time. The only real reaction I got out of him was, “Kids and people are stupid sometimes, and when they don’t know any better, they can be very mean.”

I went from being a popular kid to an outsider looking inI went from being a popular kid to an outsider looking in, and it seemed the only explanation was my Jewishness. And then it got worse. I became a target for insults and antisemitic slurs. I couldn’t understand how they could be so hateful simply because of my religion.

Then the insults turned into beatings, as I desperately tried to fit in with the crowd. When I tried to explain what it meant to be Jewish, it only made things worse.

Without anybody to talk to, I was left to figure things out for myself. My father just kept reminding me that after my bar mitzvah I could give it all up. He had no interest in religion anymore, and didn’t understand my desperation.

I began acting out at Hebrew school and synagogue. My parents were warned several times that if my behavior continued, I would not be welcomed back the next year.

My behavior was deteriorating quickly, and my parents could not understand why. My father regularly yelled at me, making me feel worthless and insignificant. As my bar mitzvah approached, I started to worry. How would I sing in Hebrew in front of all those people, when I could barely read or speak the language? Would my non-Jewish friends come? Would my Jewish friends come? Would there be a problem between the two groups?

The day finally arrived and, thankfully, my Torah reading went smoothly. But that’s where the positivity ended.

Some of the friends I really wanted didn’t come, and it was obviously because of the “type” of party we were having. The non-Jewish friends who did attend acted loud and obnoxious, and some were even sent home because they were caught trying to sneak wine

As the night unfolded, I knew I was going to be in for it the next day at school. Of course, the kids who were sent home were the ones I most desperately wanted to be friends with.

I was hopeful, however, that I could now tell the kids I was done with being Jewish. I actually believed that would work. “Hey, guys, I’m not Jewish anymore, you don’t have to beat me up now!” Unfortunately, the damage was done, and the mockery and daily harassment only worsened. At this point I began to think perhaps there was more to the harassment than simply my being Jewish. I began drinking and experimenting with drugs in an attempt to numb the pain.

I got into more and more trouble at school, started fighting back against the kids who had attacked me for two and a half years, and very quickly I was branded as a bad seed. Thus began my years of struggle. I attended three different high schools, got into trouble with the police, was sent to a group home by the age of 15—and that was just the beginning. My father had all but turned his back on me, and my mother could offer nothing more than love, because she would never go against my father.

I was violated during a runaway stint at a friend’s house, and again at the group home. When I spoke up, they refused to believe me, until two others came forward and accused the same staff member. By 19 I had moved away to California and was sliding down a very slippery slope. I spent time with gang members, was involved in criminal activity and spent a couple days in jail. By the end of my California stint, five years later, I had seen two friends killed by the very same lifestyle I was living.

I had seen and lived through many horrors, and my outlook on life was bleakI returned home a changed man. I had seen and lived through many horrors, and my outlook on life was bleak. By the time I turned 30 my mother had succumbed to an eight-year battle with leukemia, and I felt completely lost. My father had long ago denounced G‑d and religion, and his attitude had a trickle-down effect. I went on to have a family of my own, but I was a lost soul, barely surviving the daily grind. When my wife had finally had enough, she took our son and left.

Shortly thereafter, my mother appeared to me in a dream. She knew I had lost my way, but she reassured me I could find my way back. Most importantly, she said, I should have faith. She explained that all my struggles were actually lessons that I needed to pass along. I began putting my life back together piece by piece, and it is all coming to completion with the impending publication of my first book and the comprehensive guide that I am preparing for at-risk youth and their parents. It has become abundantly clear to me that if I had not turned my back on faith and religion, and instead embraced and leaned on it, I would have had a much easier time.

I have dedicated my life to sharing my experiences with as many people as possible, to try and save kids from heading down the very destructive path I was on. I am intent on passing on the traditions and teachings of Judaism to my son. I plan to teach him the importance of communication and acceptance of others.

I now work alongside an organization called Youth Assisting Youth, trying to educate people about the risks teenagers face in school and elsewhere. I have finally found faith again, and I now know what it’s like to believe. I feel that if I manage to convince even one person not to travel the route I traveled, I have done my job.

My message to any struggling young adult is stay true to yourself. Anyone who doesn’t accept you for who you are, or what you believe in, is not worth your time or energy. The toughest battle anyone can face is trying to convince someone of something they refuse to, or cannot, see.

Joshua Stern is a youth advocate and author. Click here to read excerpts from his upcoming book.
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Anonymous January 1, 2018

How inspiring, Reply

Izzy December 4, 2012

keep up the amazing work Joshua! You give me strength! Reply

Joshua Stern December 2, 2012

Boca Raton Hi there,

I am overwhelmed by your kind words and support. I am definitely dedicated to making a difference and I won't stop until I achieve my goals. Adults and especially parents play such an important role in a youngsters life and I have witnessed first hand the effects poor parenting and a lack of support can have on children.

We must come together and help children whose parents or guardians are unable to do the job.

Take care,
Reply

Joshua Stern December 2, 2012

Wonderful Piece Hi there,

I am glad that you found my article informative, but I'm even happier that it changed your perspective on things. This is the best way to create acceptance and change, by changing peoples perspectives.

Thank you for your comments and support.
Reply

Joshua Stern December 2, 2012

True Friends I apologize for how long it took me to respond, but I guess better late than never.

It sounds like you too were a very strong and brave youngster, I take my hat off to you. It's important that we teach our youth to be accepting of everyone, no matter what! It's amazing to me at this day and age we are still dealing with this topic. Understanding must be taught at a young age and continually re-enforced.

Thank you for taking the time to comment on my article.

Yours truly,
Reply

Anonymous Wauconda December 1, 2012

True Friends Josh, you are right that true friends see beyond color and religion. These are the people that you make time for in your life. I had two friends in High school, one was a Jewish Girl and the other was a Christian Girl. One day, my Christian friend sat me down and told me that my Friend Debra was Jewish. And she wanted to know why was I hanging around with a Stinky Jew? I looked at my Christian friend and walked away. Technically, her cold, malice words ruined our Friendship. I was Christian then. Now, I consider myself a Jew because I believe in one God, "HaShem." Oh, by the way, the rest of the school year I did hang around my Jewish Friend Debra and her Jewish Friends. True Friendship sees beyond color, religion and stand up for each other, mainly do what is right in God's eyes. Reply

Anonymous MISSISSAUGA, -Canada January 8, 2012

wonderful piece I am a non Jew and I have read this article and really enjoyed it. Very informative piece in this man's journey to manhood. I have many very close friends who and family if I may say that are Jewish and this piece really puts lots into perspective for me as to the culture, their own personal cultural and religious differences. Thanks for sharing this with me. Reply

Anonymous Boca Raton, Florida. USA January 8, 2012

Turning my Life Around. Book by Josh Stern I am happy to know that Josh has found himself and is openly able to both
teach others the things NOT to do and also be able to explain to them the correct reason behind both his past downfall and now theirs. For a young adult to dedicate himself like the path that Josh has chosen is commendable. He seems to be devoting his time and actual life to help others by using his judaism he knows today which was ignored and denied to him in his youth. Those years were sad for him, and he needed love and understanding, not punishment. I hope he succeeds in his attempt to teach others how to live their lives without violence. Reply