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Don’t Hide Your Diversity

Since I have an internship next semester, my major requires that I’m enrolled in a “pre-internship” professional development course. The class sessions each revolve around a central topic, such as how to handle disputes with a supervisor or market personal strengths in a resume. The information we learn is mostly helpful, and our professor is fully committed to our success. Thanks to her guidance, I was able to land a fantastic health education internship that I’m really looking forward to. However, one particular lecture from this course raised some controversy.

A few weeks ago, our professor brought in a guest to discuss the implications of social media on our professional prospects. This lecturer, Dr. Patterson*, has experience not only with health education, but also in journalism, business and sociology. Her credentials include research, teaching and even a PhD. In short, she’s the kind of person who generally knows what she’s talking about.

In the beginning of her lecture, Dr. Patterson announced that she had looked up some of us online after being given a copy of the class roster, and without naming names began to describe some public posts she found to be “problematic.” Some of them were definitely questionable, such as a picture of a student raising a middle finger or an angry curse-filled rant about a chemistry course. A few of them weren’t necessarily bad on their own, but were missing context — she noted a sorority big/little picture that could have easily been mistaken as having been from a wild party. But then she began to describe a Facebook cover photo of my own.

Around the time of Passover, I had posted a funny online e-card as a joke relating to the holiday. The central story of Passover involves the Jewish escape from Egypt, where (according to our tradition) our people had once been enslaved. As the narrative goes, we had to leave so quickly that there wasn’t even enough time to properly bake a loaf of bread to nosh on while we traveled. Instead, all of the dough came out as hard, dry crackers — which is why we eat matzah at all of our Seders to this day. Matzah serves as a symbol of the rough journey we took as we wandered through the desert, and it is pretty infamous within Jewish culture. Since we’re stuck eating these unleavened crackers for about a week every spring, many Jews love to make light of it. So, my cover photo quipped about how much better it’d be if, in this great Egyptian escape, someone had grabbed cake or a pizza instead. Can you imagine an entire holiday revolving around delicious carbs? It could have happened, but instead we ended up with a festival centered on what many consider to be one of the worst cooking experiments of all time. We have every right to laugh it off.

Unfortunately, Dr. Patterson disagreed with my sense of humor. She talked about my post with disdain, as if it was weird for me to publicly celebrate my own holiday. Later in her lecture she pulled up a PowerPoint slide stating that only privately approved friends should be able to see references to our religious and political views. She also briefly remarked on hiding ethnicity and sexual orientation from our public profile, too. Does this mean, by her opinion, that we shouldn’t share profile pictures and cover photos showing support for the LGBTQ community or racial justice, either? Dr. Patterson explained that, while it’s illegal for a prospective employer to ask about or openly discriminate against our beliefs in an interview, we could easily be disqualified based on what our social media reveals about us, and we may never even know. In her mind, this seems to equate to hiding away personal perspectives and identifiers in an attempt to reduce bias during the hiring process. But I believe her premise is fundamentally flawed.

I challenged her. “What if I wouldn’t want to be hired by someone who’d find me unfit due to my religious, ethnic and cultural background?”

Nonchalantly, she replied — “Well, that’s up to you.”

Up to me? I didn’t choose to be born Jewish. Although Judaism is associated with a set of religious beliefs, it is also considered an ethnicity. Anyone born to Jews is considered to be of Jewish heritage, regardless of whether or not they personally follow the associated belief system. Sure, I could tuck away a symbolic necklace during an interview. A Jewish guy could choose to cover or take off his kippah while applying for a job. But in today’s day and age, especially in a country like America — why should we ever have to? I doubt that Dr. Patterson would ever outright tell a visibly African American or Hispanic student to not post pictures of themselves on their profile, or suggest to an Islamic woman to interview without her hijab. Any of these situations would obviously reveal a person’s ethnicity and/or religious belief, but she probably wouldn’t label them as questionable. So why is she telling me, as a Jew, to hide any evidence of Judaism from the public posts on my Facebook?

By doing so, I would not simply be concealing a core aspect of my identity — I would also be implying that my background is something that should be hidden. This is the same mindset that, although seemingly innocent at first, subtly allows for anti-Semitism to grow. Just before the Holocaust, Jews had been barred from holding government positions or running businesses. As few people questioned this, it gradually became more and more normalized to shut Jews out of various aspects of German society. Although I’m sure that Dr. Patterson doesn’t personally believe in not hiring Jews, or in otherwise being discriminatory, her idea of hiding our identity from the public eye acts as an enabler for prejudice. It calls to mind some of the darkest times in history, although perhaps this realization doesn’t come as naturally (not out of malicious intent) to someone who isn’t of a historically persecuted background.

Ironically enough, when I went to search through Dr. Patterson’s own Facebook profile, I found a cover photo displaying some Easter eggs lying in a patch of grass. From this post, I can tell she’s likely Christian, and she celebrates the holiday of Easter. Although we don’t share religious beliefs, I’d never think to hold our differences against her. However, she was quick to label my matzah-related cover photo as “problematic” while her Easter eggs are apparently fine. Had my post been about wishing a bunny could lay chocolate candy eggs instead, would she have questioned it? Had I shown my family standing around a Christmas tree, would anyone bat an eye? Her statement against my cover photo was clearly because it reflected a Jewish holiday. We’re not part of the mainstream, and the fact that we happen to celebrate springtime differently than most Americans can be considered exotic. By suggesting that I take this cover photo off of my profile, Dr. Patterson is acting from a place of privilege, and implying (whether she means to or not) that “foreign cultures” are inherently something to be shunned. By this logic, the unfamiliar is something to fear.

Instead, I see the unfamiliar as something worth learning about. I choose to embrace my Jewish identity with love and pride, and I have every right to be as excited about my matzah as she is about her painted eggs. In whatever career field I ultimately work in, I’ll be sure to encounter clients of various backgrounds, each with their own stories and traditions. Shouldn’t that be reflected in employment as well? No matter what the Dr. Pattersons of the world might say, I’m not about to back down.

My current cover photo depicts me holding an Israeli flag across my back at the top of Mount Masada. Translated from Hebrew, the caption reads: “The nation of Israel lives.” (In Jewish liturgy, all Jews are considered to be from the nation of Israel, and we all have the right to claim citizenship in the modern-day country as well.) As it turns out though, we’re not only alive — we’re also getting hired.

I might be stuck with a week’s worth of stale crackers this spring, but I’ll be munching on them from the comfort of an office in Shands, our nationally renowned on-campus hospital. The only “problematic” part of the whole deal is the lack of good cake and pizza. Considering that my ancestors made it through an entire desert, however, I think I’ll survive.

* Name has been changed.

Valerie Berman graduated from the University of Florida in 2018 with a Bachelor of Science in Health Education, and continued her academic pursuits as part of the UF College of Nursing's Accelerated BSN program. During her undergraduate years, she was a member of the UF Honors Program, volunteered with Shands Hospital and Alachua County Schools, acted as delegate for the Jewish Student Union's Dance Marathon team, and got involved with the Jewish community on campus as part of the Lubavitch Chabad Student Group. She also traveled to Israel twice, and attended various Judaic study programs. Val's creative pursuits extend beyond writing – she's also dipped her toes into baking, painting, and designing Redbubble stickers. Her current life plan involves furthering her nursing career, settling down in New York or South Florida, and eventually becoming that one Jewish mother everyone knows and loves. For now, though, you can probably find her eating ice cream and plotting how to win her next Pokémon battle!
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