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  • Writer's pictureArizona Ritchie

Jewish & Proud

As we move through life, we begin to understand our identity and the many layers that help build it. A foundational piece of my identity is being Jewish. Judaism is more than religion; it encompasses a stimulating culture and provides a sacred connection to my ancestors and family. I grew up in a Jewish household where we built a significant part of our life around our Jewish community. Although I hadn’t realized it at the time, being active within my synagogue and observing Jewish traditions filled my metaphorical cup. Judaism is one aspect of my life that taught me the importance of community—the other is softball.

Judaism and softball, hands down, have brought me my greatest joys in life, teaching me the value of friendship, family, and love. They continue to be integral to who I am today and who I want to be in the future.

As I entered college, my Jewish identity was pushed to the side. As we all know, being a student-athlete is time-consuming, especially as a first year. I hadn’t exactly learned how to manage my time, everything was new, and I was trying hard to fit in to a different environment. My focuses and priorities changed as I tried to acclimate to my new life. Between class, lift, practice, treatments, competition, eating, sleeping, and of course, trying to fit in a social life, I didn’t make time for my faith. I became aware that creating space for my faith was harder for me than it was for some of my friends and teammates—they had power in numbers. Because Judaism is a religious minority, our weekly sabbath and holidays are not worked into the secular schedule. I’ve learned to expect and accept this. When I got to college it became my responsibility to seek out Judaism, rather than it being built into my life. It wasn’t as easy to participate in Jewish activities as it was when I was doing it with my family.

At first, I wasn’t aware I stopped being active in my religion. Initially, I had only met one other Jewish athlete on the football team. Aside from him, I was no longer surrounded by other Jewish people. I would participate in what I could, sometimes finding my way to the Brody Jewish Center at UVA where Jewish students attend religious services and other events. But because of my busy schedule, I was rarely able to show up and participate in the Brody Center’s planned Jewish activities.

Fast forward 2 years, and I realized a hole was forming where my Jewish identity used to be. There was this large part of me missing; a part that wasn’t being seen or understood by my best friends, teammates, and coaches, which kept them from truly knowing who I was. It can be isolating when important pieces of you don’t have the space they need to flourish. And it wasn’t because I kept it hidden, and it wasn’t anyone else’s fault, it was just because there was no opportunity for me to actively be Jewish. There is such a small population of Jewish athletes at UVA that I never found myself in a social situation to just be Jewish and to just be in my culture. So instead, I created the opportunity.

In my 3rd year at UVA I realized that it takes a lot of effort and vulnerability to not only speak up for what you want, but to also expand your social circle. Being a student-athlete can be socially isolating, whether it’s making friends with non-athletes or athletes from other sports. So, after I’d done some growing up and gained some very much needed confidence, a friend and I decided to start the Jewish Student-Athletes Club, the first of its kind at UVA. The goal of JSAC is to create a time-flexible space for Jewish student-athletes to be a part of their religious community. I remember being so jealous of (and inspired by) AIA, a Christian club for athletes at UVA. AIA had built a connected community of student-athletes that were able to bond over their religious passions. I wanted something like that for the people I was hoping to connect with on a religious basis. I wanted to know if there were others that were feeling disconnected from Judaism and maybe even a little lost because of it. Most importantly, I needed to know if there were people who wanted to be with other Jewish athletes. JSAC is now an active club where Jewish athletes meet for get-togethers around holidays such as the Jewish New Year, Chanukah, and Passover. Food is a big part of our get-togethers, and we boast about the deliciousness of bagels and lox, rugelach, babka, and latkes.

Now that you understand the importance of my Jewish identity, I’m going to switch gears a little bit. During the summer after my 3rd year, I was invited to play softball for the Israeli National Team. To say this was a huge honor is a massive understatement. Playing softball always offered me great opportunities to meet people from other areas, to travel across the US, and to gain the tremendous character building all athletes derive from being on a team. And now suddenly, my athletic ability opened a huge opportunity for me by being able to play for Israel. In a matter of months, I received my dual citizenship in Israel and started playing internationally.

I have tremendous pride playing for and being part of Israel, the location of so much history, strength, and triumph.

Playing for Team Israel also introduced me to other Jewish softball players which was amazing. My fellow Jewish teammates and I bonded over so many of the same experiences and concepts. This truly helped fill the hole I had where I was missing Jewish activity and familiarity since I left home to start college.

There’s a stereotype that Jewish people are not athletic and of course, that’s not true. There are Team Israels in every sport competing at many different levels. My team came in 4th place in the European Softball Championship last summer; we were just one game away from the Bronze Medal! Baseball and softball are growing in popularity in Israel, so my team is definitely part of building the momentum and excitement!

Spending time in Israel and traveling through Europe while we competed gave me a different perspective on anti-Semitism, different from what people typically see on the American TV news. Israel is a beautiful country, home to authentic, loving, and joyful people. The nation has historically been a haven for Jewish people, especially after the Holocaust.

During one of the first get-togethers between my Israeli coaches and all the players, we discussed our Jewish pride, but because of the threat of anti-Semitism, we were still told to not flaunt our Jewish identity. We were instructed not to wear our Team Israel T-shirts or backpacks for fear of hate crimes. We all had to put tape over the Jewish Star on our backpacks while walking through airports or heavily populated areas. I was told to take off any jewelry that could indicate I was Jewish as soon as we landed at the airport for the tournament. We were not allowed to share our schedules or game times because terrorists could figure out where we were at any given time.

Fear of hate crimes is not only prevalent in countries outside the United States. In New York, where there is a high Jewish population, Jewish hate crimes increased by 400% between 2021 and 2022. Rabbis across America have been killed simply for being Rabbis. There has been an attitude of hatred towards the Jewish people and Israel throughout history, and it continues today. It is heartbreaking to be fearful of showing who you are. It is heartbreaking to be told not to wear “Israel” across my chest.

However, the Jewish community has a phrase that we fall back on when we feel fear creeping in: ‘We are not Jews with trembling knees.’ So, we will not give in to fear. We will choose to be proud of who we are. All people should just be able to be who they choose to be without fear of hatred or violence.

When I put on my team Israel uniform, I represent my family and ancestors, those who will put on the uniform after me, and those who have died at the hands of hatred. My Judaism tethers me to my family and guides the way I live. It has instilled in me the characteristics of which I am most proud: love; compassion; joy; and authenticity. I refuse to hide in fear. I am Jewish and proud.


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