It was the Monday morning right after the Pittsburgh synagogue attack, and I had not yet determined if and how I would approach the topic with my sixth-grade class. I, an observant Jewish woman, work in an elementary public school. Most of my students are not Jewish, but they come from different cultural backgrounds. Working in a predominantlyI have not been very vocal about my Jewish observance non-Jewish community, I have not been very vocal about my Jewish observance. In fact, despite my absence for all of the Jewish holidays, I have never really discussed my kosher diet or lifestyle. Moreover, I rarely share my opinions about issues that affect the Jewish people. In past years, I had experienced various acts of anti-Semitism, although minor, which had left a very uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach. I suppose that may be why my guard is always up, so to speak. And while I would not consider myself to be secretive, I would definitely say that I have been selective about information I choose to share in the workplace.

This year was different. On that brisk morning in November, I held our routine “Check-In Circle.” As each student shared his and her Monday-morning mood, it was eventually my turn. I don’t know that the students were expecting my response; I don’t even know if I expected my response. Yet I paused and slowly began to share my devastation and shock over the attack, which I called an attack on my people. I proceeded to talk about my weekly Shabbat visits to my synagogue where my husband, children and I spend each Saturday. I had even shared that one of the victims was a cousin of an old colleague—a teacher whom had recently transferred to another school and someone my students knew. In a very steady and solemn tone, I used words like “sad” and “angry.” I raised questions about what it means to practice one’s religion openly and comfortably in North America—a continent that prides itself on its diversity, tolerance and freedom.

Then it happened. For the first time in the history of my 15-year career, in this little circle we use to share our feelings, emotions and thoughts, I became open for the first time. I declared myself a proud observant, Jewish woman. As I looked around at this circle of 29 11-year-olds, I attributed my tolerance and respect towards others to my morals and values that stem from my Judaism. As we went around the circle, my students began to share their feelings and emotions about what happened on that Shabbat morning. And ultimately, they were all left with the same simple question: Why?

As I think about my hesitance to be open about my identity—concealing it with a perfectly coiffed wig used to cover my real hair and using a digital prayerbook (on my phone) to pray—I ask myself “why”? As I continue to educate my students about the Holocaust and the events that led up to it to ensure that the words “Never Again” never lead to the response of “Never Again What?,” why am I afraid to be open with who I am? As I encourage my students to wear their religious garments with pride, why do I work so hard to hide mine? As various students in my class discuss their religious dietary requirements and their weekly trips to their religious places of worship, why do I struggle to share mine? Simply put, why?

I often wondered when the day would come that I would be able to utter the words: “I am an observant, Jewish woman.” And while I didn’t plan for that moment to be that brisk November morning, triggered by a discussion about the heinous crime committed on the Jewish people, I know that it was the right time. I could not be more proud with how I said it, and I have never been more relieved. Declaring my pride in my heritage and observance in front of my students has started me on the next step of my Jewish journey. I am finally starting to become what I encourage all my students to be: an individual who openly takes pride in her identity.

This simple statement, the combination of a few small words, was a huge stepping stone forI have never been more relieved me and my confidence. Since then, I have become more comfortable with being open about my Judaism in the workplace. And while I have not yet explained that the hair my students so love is actually a wig, I have started to inform them about my kosher dietary requirements. My students now understand why I am so protective of the coffee pot in my classroom and why I never go out to eat lunch. In fact, they have become my advocates when it comes to that which I can and cannot eat.

During the holiday season, it is customary, albeit completely unnecessary, for students to buy gifts for their teachers. While I always stress that I am in need of nothing, this year I said to my students that if they insist on giving me gifts, then I asked them to avoid common chocolate and various other foods due to my kosher diet. In response to my explanation, including that “it’s complicated, so don’t worry about the details,” my students pushed me to explain what it means and how they can determine whether certain packaged foods are kosher. Most respected my wishes to avoid edible presents, but one of the most meaningful gifts I received this past year was a jar of Folgers instant coffee from a boy whose family is from India. He had reassured me that I could drink the coffee because he Googled whether or not it was kosher.

So, this brings me back to that question: Why? Why have I let a couple of minor anti-Semitic incidents dictate my willingness to be open with my Jewish observance when I encourage Jewish people in my community and on social media to be open and proud of the trials and tribulations we have overcome? Why do I choose to stay silent about my identity when I encourage my students to take pride in theirs? Why do I get nervous about how others will see me when I work with students to be confident in how they see themselves irrespective of the opinions of the people around them?

The Pittsburgh synagogue attack was devastating and shook the Jewish community to its core. It also resonated with other religious communities all over North America. Yet it was also a catalyst for change. After all of these years of making excuses for keeping my identity private, after continuously asking myself, “Why should I even bother?” I finally found one simple reason to be proud to be more open with who I am. I am now beginning to ask the question: “Why not?!”

Why not let the people I am surrounded by daily see who I really am? Why not letWhy not let people see who I really am? other people know that the very morals and values I hold true are attributed to my foundations in Judaism? Why not let others know that everything else they see and know about me is simply a piece of me, a part of who I am. But they do not define me. First and foremost, I am defined by my Judaism. And if I am willing to share other characteristics, then why not this?

It is never an easy process to share something new about oneself for the first time. The nerves in my stomach had built to such a high level of discomfort that I was always secretly thinking about when I would become truly comfortable with my identity in the workplace. No matter how many times I tried to convince myself that being more open about my identity was irrelevant to my role as an educator, it does matter. My Judaism is not a part of me; my Judaism is all of me. And while I wholeheartedly wish that the Pittsburgh attack never happened, I felt I needed to find some positive message, some kind of positive change, that it triggered. Maybe it is my way of coping with the attack itself. Although I am just one person, I can find some solace in its ability to be a catalyst in helping me to be more honest and true to who I am: a proud observant, Jewish woman.