As a 22-year-old, I’ve worn a kippah on my own volition for as long as I can remember. All day, every day. Now, with anti-Semitic attacks on the rise and campus rhetoric increasingly ugly, my commitment to this ritual feels especially important.
I’ve fielded interesting questions over the years. I vividly remember an innocent inquiry from a young camper at Camp Possibilities, a summer camp for children with Type 1 diabetes, where I’ve volunteered the past seven years: “Is that thing stapled to your head?”
Having grown up in a strong Jewish community in Potomac, Md., and having attended Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, this question was weirdly unfamiliar to me. Wearing a kippah, the traditional head covering worn to honor the Divine, was commonplace. This, however, was the first of many questions that followed and challenged me to delve deeper into my personal understanding of my religious practices and preferences. I got used to looking at my kippah as a venue for opening a window into my religion and seeing myself as a leader and spokesperson for the Jewish community.
Upon arriving as a freshman to Emory University in Atlanta, I had a decision to make: To wear or not to wear?
For weeks, the question plagued me with new urgency; after all, college is where students can shed their prior selves, and create a new personal narrative. I was exploring how visibly Jewish I wanted to be. But, as classes started, I made the decision to keep the kippah.
As one of the few students wearing a kippah, I found myself fielding questions about Judaism from my peers, professors and administrators. Some inquired about the legitimacy of the incredible number of Jewish holidays in September, saying “Someone requested an exam extension. Is this a legit holiday?” Others invited me to coffee and sent emails of gratitude and blessings before Passover.
It was also in my first year that my kippah sparked a conversation with a monk during Emory’s Tibet Week.
Having only learned about Buddhism from movies and from my dad’s recent eagerness to integrate meditation into Jewish practice, I had a conversation with a monk on the quad in the middle of Atlanta.
Once again, I assumed the position of a spokesperson, friend, educator and leader.
The following summer, I found myself leading Kabbalat Shabbat on a hot and hazy Friday evening at the Drepung Loseling Monastery while studying abroad. Surrounded by faculty from all over the world, new friends from Emory, and Buddhist monks and nuns, we welcomed in the Sabbath by singing Hebrew songs in a remote village in Southern India.
I’ve realized that the simple cloth that I took for granted my entire childhood is increasingly also a catalyst for dialogue. It enables me to engage others from disparate backgrounds in productive and constructive conversation. It lays the groundwork for relationships and friendships. It builds bridges to explore religion and philosophy, to better understand other viewpoints and to move beyond what is familiar to me.
Sadly, however, my kippah is also a catalyst for hate.
It has made me — and many others — targets of anti-Semitic and discriminatory mocking, stereotypes, words, attacks and violence. And admittedly, at times, I’m afraid to wear it in public. This deeply disturbs and upsets me, particularly as the grandson of Holocaust survivors who fought so hard to ensure a safe life for me as a Jewish young adult in America.
High-profile anti-Semitic attacks include the Yom Kippur attack at the synagogue in Halle, Germany, the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the recent shooting at a kosher grocery store in Jersey City, and the stabbing at the Hanukkah celebration in Monsey, N.Y.
As a child, when I walked to Beth Sholom Congregation with my family on Shabbat, I was keenly aware of the armed police who stood at the entrance because of anti-Semitic threats. I remember I aspired to become a police officer because of their presence at the synagogue. Now, as a young adult, I understand more fully the reasons for officers at Jewish schools, synagogues, nonprofit organizations and community centers.
Last year during a heated campus-wide debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I found “Treat all faiths equally, not just the ones with money” chalked on the sidewalk of my university quad, harking back to age-old stereotypes about Jewish people. I’ve been called a white supremacist and militant Zionist, and I’ve been excluded from campus organizations because of my affiliation with Jewish community clubs. The visible sign of a kippah makes me a target for vitriol from both sides of the political spectrum.
I’ve always felt safe wearing my kippah at Emory, but recently — for the first time — I feel increased vulnerability in being publicly recognized as Jewish.
As renowned Emory University Holocaust and Jewish studies professor Deborah Lipstadt puts it: “When Jews feel it is safer for them to go ‘underground’ as Jews, something is terribly wrong — wrong for them and, even more so, wrong for the society in which they live. … No healthy democracy can afford to tolerate anti-Semitism in its midst. It is one of the long-term signs of rot in that democracy.”
Even with recent threats, I feel empowered to wear my kippah even more proudly in hopes of building a more cohesive community of global citizens that can engage respectfully in civil discourse. And I encourage myself and other Jews to stand proud of their Jewish practice, heritage and tradition. I won’t be a victim. I am Jewish and proud. Today and every day.
To those of other backgrounds, do not stand idly by. We all — Jewish and non-Jewish — must publicly recognize and actively call out religious discrimination and anti-Semitism to prevent the rot from more damage.
David Kulp is a fourth-year student at Emory University studying interdisciplinary studies and medical ethics on a pre-medicine track.