‘I am proud to be Jewish’: UI student finds community in Iowa City

Emily Hartman, a Jewish student and co-president of the university’s Jewish student organization shares her experience on growing up as a religious minority in America.


Isabella Cervantes

Emily Hartman, poses for a portrait, on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022.

Emily Hartman, Guest Writer

At all of the public K-12 schools I attended, I was the only Jewish student in my classes. I was the “go-to” person when it came to answering any and all questions about Judaism. No one around me understood this integral part of my life and who I truly am. I also had the dubious distinction of being the first Jewish person many people had met.

No one enjoys feeling like they don’t belong, but that’s how I felt growing up. Having moved numerous times during my childhood, I have lived in different cities and states that were home to populations of people with varying social, cultural, and religious backgrounds. In all the places I’ve lived, there was never a Jewish community nearby.

This isn’t too hard to believe considering that, as of 2020, the American Jewish population is estimated at just 7.6 million people. That’s only 2.4 percent of the total U.S. population, according to the Pew Research Center.

Each person’s experience of being part of a minority group in America is very different, but being in a minority can mean you are underrepresented, undersupported, or misunderstood.

My Jewish peers and I have always had to advocate for ourselves in a multitude of settings. We have grown up having to explain to teachers and professors that we cannot attend classes or take exams on the High Holidays as we will be observing our Jewish traditions.

My Jewish friends and I have dealt with many microaggressions, some even from close friends. We’ve been told that we do or do not “look Jewish” or that our actions and behaviors “make sense” based on hurtful and wildly untrue stereotypes about Jewish people.

We’ve been asked as individuals to represent the whole of Judaism in conversations on politics and world matters. That always seemed strange to me because it’s no one’s responsibility to represent an entire religion or ethnicity, and they shouldn’t have to educate others about it.

Jewish people are a diverse people who connect to Judaism in different ways. Judaism is an ethno-religion, which means that we have a shared religious and ethnic background.

We have a shared ancestral heritage, religious affiliation, history, and cultural traditions. Some Jewish people connect to their ethnicity, culture, and spirituality through Judaism, while others may connect to just one or two of these aspects. There are many ways to be Jewish, with no right or wrong way.

No matter how Jewish people connect to their identity, we have all felt the love and support of those who relate to and understand us, and we’ve also felt the negativity surrounding Judaism coming from those who don’t.

There is a misconception that antisemitism is a thing of the past. But given that the FBI estimates that nearly 60 percent of religious-bias crimes in the U.S. are committed against Jewish people, we know that it still exists.

Additionally, social media platforms have become a place to spread and amplify this hate. Unfortunately, these negative words don’t just stay on the page and can fuel hatred and violence toward Jewish people.

Thankfully, I have always been able to find support in the Jewish community at Iowa Hillel, which is the foundation for Jewish life on the University of Iowa’s campus. Iowa Hillel is run by three staff members and many student leaders, who are trying to help create vibrant Jewish life on campus in whatever way is meaningful for students.

We have students at our Hillel who come from the northern suburbs of Chicago and grew up in large Jewish communities where the public schools closed on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.

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We also have students, like me, for which Iowa Hillel is the largest Jewish community they’ve ever been a part of. Some students come from families that stopped practicing Judaism around the time of the Holocaust and are now exploring their Judaism through Iowa Hillel.

Other students have had a bar or bat mitzvah, a Jewish coming-of-age ritual that happens at 12 or 13 years old, and attended services at synagogue weekly. We have students who grew up Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, or Modern Orthodox, and we have students who grew up more secular. We all might have different Jewish backgrounds, but we can still find a home at Iowa Hillel and a delicious kosher meal on Friday nights.

Iowa Hillel has given me the opportunity to be part of a greater Jewish community. Here, I’ve made lifelong friends, felt endless support and understanding, and have been given several opportunities to help lead my community and peers.

As a Hillel Student Board Co-President and a weekly religious service leader, I’ve been able to grow in my Judaism and leadership as well as support my Jewish peers to do the same. The Jewish Learning Fellowship courses that I’ve taken at Iowa Hillel have helped me think deeply and introspectively about Judaism.

Hillel has also given me the opportunity to educate the rest of the Iowa community about Judaism. Before Rosh Hashanah this past September, I joined my friends and we handed out 400 apples and honey over a three-day period on campus with a little note card that explained what Rosh Hashanah is, how to greet someone celebrating it, and ways people could participate in celebrating the holiday through Iowa Hillel.

I enjoyed getting to share with students on campus, most of whom weren’t aware of what Hillel was and didn’t know about the tradition of dipping apples into honey to have a sweet new year.

Sharing my Jewish identity with others on campus and learning more deeply about Judaism has helped me explore the beauty in our traditions that have been passed down through the generations, and it has continued to connect me to the Jewish values that shape who I am.

I am proud to be Jewish, to be part of such a vibrant religion, culture, and community. I was concerned that going to college in Iowa would be a repeat of my childhood,  where I had to continually explain and fight for my Judaism, and that I would have to do it alone. Although I still must do these things, I am not alone. At the UI, I have found the Jewish community for which I have been searching for so long.