Society’s Effect on Religious Expression


Isabel Kaplan, four-year Union for Reform Judaism Camp Kalsman attendee

Albany Nelson, Journalist

     Summer camp just started and like every year campers load the buses to start the summer off with a field trip. The bus is filled with laughter and chatter. Then, the camp director comes onto the bus and everyone goes silent. They all know the conversation that is going to be taking place shortly. The conversation people go silent for,  mouths go dry, and people don’t dare argue, because it is a known reality. The camp director says “may I have your attention, please? We are about to go to a public space. We are proud of our religion but many people don’t like that. You may not wear any Camp gear, if people ask you what kind of camp we are from, say a summer camp, you must be careful. It is for your safety, have fun everyone.” 

     Isabel Kaplan, an involved Seattle community member, and camper at URJ Camp Kalsman has been hearing this speech for 4 summers now before every field trip. Campers were told by counselors “not to wear anything with the name of the camp on it and not to say anything in Hebrew or play music in Hebrew. When the director came on the bus, “he would go up and down the aisle to make sure no one was wearing camp gear,” says Kaplan. People of all different faiths have been hearing this speech for generations in some form or another. They all say the same thing though: fear. Society influences everything people do. It also has a view of “normal” and depending on what that looks like, people express themselves in various ways. So how does society affect people’s ability to express religious backgrounds? 

     Society has social constructs about every religion, and many people like to believe that it doesn’t affect our actions towards one another. Sfian Dwas, a practicing Muslim and senior at Capital High School, makes it is clear that even locally, in pretty open-minded Olympia, prejudice comes through all the time. “I have been insulted on a multitude of occasions and been the subject of a lot of ‘jokes’. I wish people would stop with the terrorist jokes and to also stop assuming that I’m not a ‘real’ Muslim because I [am] of African descent.” Anti-Muslim attacks happen all the time and increase yearly in the United States. According to New America, there were 763 separate incidents from 2012 to 2018 alone. Anti-Muslim crime is a big problem here in the United States. 

     Another part of society that affects people’s ability to express their religion is many school systems and workplaces don’t acknowledge other cultures or religions. Shai Rubin, a  student at a Jewish Day School in Canada says “it’s just one of the ways society makes Christianity the default and shoves other religions under the rug.” One big example is having school scheduled on non-Catholic religious holidays. Students of that holiday’s faith may be excused because of it, but the school system does not acknowledge other religious holidays most of the time. The same goes for out of school as well. Around December when do you see anything other than Christmas represented? The small rack of Hanukkah decorations in the whole store of Christmas and no other culture represented. It’s something any minority religion struggles with especially during the month of December. Kaplan thinks “it spreads an important message. Being part of a minority religion has given me a unique perspective on how society affects the ability to express oneself.” 

     Dwas also says that “for the most part Islam isn’t really known about or even taught here.” The lack of knowledge affects how people see religions that are not as well known. Dwas also says “I definitely think America has a negative bias towards Muslims, I feel like this negative perception is due to ignorance about Islam, and the fact that we lack Muslim representation in the U.S. Some people only hear the word Islam when it is in relation to the Islamic extremists.” To put that in perspective, other countries acknowledge religion differently than the US. “I did a semester abroad as an exchange student last semester in Italy. Most Italians are Catholic and there are very very very few Jews, and the Jews that there are, are Orthodox. In the public high school I went to, we had a Catholic religion class that teaches about the history of Catholicism and also touches on other religions,” says Kaplan.

     In some ways, Italy made Kaplanfeel like even more of a minority due to her religion than in the U.S. “At synagogues I’ve visited in Europe, they have much stricter security than we have at our local temple. Whether it’s in America or a foreign country, I have experienced the constraints of expressing my religion.” Kaplan also commented that even in Seattle, there is a large amount of security. “I have never seen a church or another place of worship have bodyguards. This makes me realize that there is a danger to me practicing my religion, especially seeing on the news all the attacks on synagogues. I feel like practicing my religion can put me in a risky situation.” 

     The places people live, the culture they live in, the predominant religion people follow, any person that has something outside of this box deals with this idea of how people will react. “America can be a good place to live to feel free with expressing your religion, but that doesn’t always mean feeling safe. There is a small group of people that make us reluctant, seeing the attacks and hate crimes in the news can be scary.”

     One day after another Synagogue in America was attacked with bombs, Kaplan spoke up about it on social media. She told her story of the camp director and more and more people started saying ‘that shaped me too.’ Kaplan says “it is impactful, I think about when any other type of camp or school group goes on a field trip in a group, often they are wearing shirts with their school/camp on it. Because we are Jewish, we weren’t allowed to show anything associated with that for our safety. This is a memory that my camp friends and I all vividly remember. We should be able to wear whatever we want and talk however we want and not fear for our safety just because of our religion.” Society affects people’s ability to express religious faith because of fear. Over and over people are targeted for something they believe in. In today’s society, people are trained from a young age to not share their faith because it could be dangerous. People are told to accept that a part of who they are, may not be shared. Any minority religion in America feels the impact of being different according to society.