“Number 32! He’s our favorite Jew!” As I was about to take a free throw in my 8th grade basketball game, all I could do was laugh as I looked up in the stands and saw my friends enthusiastically leading a chant. We sure had come a long way. And I was enjoying the moment (even as my family cringed).
Less than two years earlier, at age 12, I had heard, “Kevin, we are going to start the Nazi party of Langston, and you will be our first target.” I really could not process what was happening. One minute, I was hanging out with my new middle school classmates at lunch, just talking in the cafeteria like we did every day. And the next minute, I was genuinely scared. These words were a dagger to my heart.
That night, I told my mom that I wanted to move back to Potomac, Maryland, where there were more kids “like me.” There I attended a Jewish pre-school. I even played a rabbi in the school play – probably the first time a Kevin or McCarthy had ever played that role. And celebrating the high holidays with my grandparents was something I looked forward to.
Our family’s move to South Carolina, the Bible Belt, changed all of that. The antisemitism started in third grade for me. I heard the occasional pizza oven comment. And every now and then someone would tell me they hated Jews. But for my siblings, it started even earlier. My sister was told in first grade that she was the one that got away from the camps. And my brother was shamed for not saying that Jesus was the most important person who ever lived. His response was LeBron James. We had just sort of gotten used to these hurtful comments. Never easy. And always painful. But they never rose to the level of panic. This time was different. And I wanted out.
A couple of weeks later, we started studying the Holocaust in school. This wound up being a breakthrough moment. The teacher did a great job of explaining the terror of the situation and I could tell that the kids understood that what happened to the Jews and others was atrocious. I looked around and could also tell that this was registering with my lunch table. The Holocaust and Jew jokes stopped. I started to feel more accepted. It dawned on me then that the problem was not that my 6th grade classmates were raging anti-Semites; they were ignorant. So afterwards, I was able to share more about my religion. My mom would come in and teach about Hanukkah. Six years later, and, ironically, about to graduate Christ Church, an Episcopal high school, I rarely hear any Jew comments. And when I do, I am usually able to bring the conversation to an end by calmly asking why joking about the death of 6 million Jews is funny.
Turns out, moving to the south was life enhancing. It made me a better person by forcing me to understand people with different upbringings and political views (and who call my mom “Ma’am” and eat way too much Chick-fil-A) and, more importantly, to embrace those differences. In doing so, I have forged meaningful relationships with peers all over the political, religious and socio-economic spectrum. I even have friends taking the ancestry family tree test hoping to discover Jewish roots. I also learned an important lesson: surrounding myself with people “like me” is not the long-term solution to handling difficult situations or people. Instead, communication, understanding, and empathy are much better tools.
And in case you were wondering, I sunk both free throws in that middle school basketball game.