JANUARY 17, 2020
Abby Adams was given her first Star of David when she was in elementary school, but at the time, she says, it was just a pretty necklace to her — she didn’t really understand the symbol’s significance.
Here’s what she did understand: She was different from most of the other kids, even if her blonde hair and blue eyes didn’t make her look it.
“The first time I felt left out for being Jewish was in first grade, when we were making turkeys for Thanksgiving,” she recalls. “On each little feather, we had to write one thing we were grateful for, and our teacher was giving us examples. One of them was Jesus. I didn’t know what Jesus was, or who Jesus was. But I came home with ‘Jesus’ on one of my turkey’s feathers, and my parents were like, ‘Hmm.’”
Eleven years later, Adams — now a 17-year-old senior at Charlotte Latin School — still is familiar with the sting of being left out for being Jewish, of hearing jokes that mock or marginalize her religion. On top of that, she has found herself reeling in anguish and horror, again and again, in the wake of anti-Semitic hate crimes like the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in 2018, the Poway synagogue shooting last April, and the Monsey Hanukkah stabbing last month.
And in an effort to counter those feelings — in an effort to spread positivity and maybe, she hopes, even effect real change — Adams co-founded a social-media campaign called “Why I Wear My Star,” which is giving young and old Jewish men and women all around the globe an opportunity to open up about their faith and what it means to them.
With fewer than 1,600 followers on Instagram and only about one-third that number of people having become fans of the Facebook page since Adams and Winter Park, Fla., teen Sammy Gabbai launched it last spring, “Why I Wear My Star” hardly qualifies as a viral sensation.
But taking over the internet, Adams says, was never really the point.
MAKING JUDAISM A PRIORITY
Adams was born in New York, where Jews are plentiful (her mother, raised Presbyterian, converted after marrying); then, when Abby was 3 years old, her family moved to Charlotte — where they are not.
As a result, she says, teachers and classmates and the various other people she interacted with throughout her early childhood lacked even a fairly basic understanding of what it means to be Jewish.
After explaining the Thanksgiving elementary-school assignment, another example of insensitivity springs quickly to her mind: “I was telling one of my tennis coaches what I did over the summer, and I said I went to a Jewish camp. He said, ‘You probably shouldn’t use “Jewish” and “camp” in the same sentence,’ and laughed. I just didn’t find that funny at all.”
Though she was kind-of-but-not-really interested in the worship services her family attended at Temple Beth El on Providence Road when she was a girl, and though she went years without much caring after she wound up losing that first Star of David necklace, Adams eventually matured into a young woman who is fully engaged in her faith.
Among the host of activities that fill her resume: At Temple Beth El, she works as a teacher’s assistant in the religious school. She wrote an essay on the similarities between transcendentalism and Judaism that was published on the official website of the BBYO, the world’s largest Jewish youth group. And this year, she is part of a high school internship program offered by StandWithUs, an Israel education organization with a mission to combat anti-Semitism.
It was through the internship program, in fact, that Adams met her eventual “Why I Wear My Star” partner, Gabbai, last April. A few days later, on the final day of Passover, a gunman armed with an AR-15-style rifle burst into the Chabad of Poway synagogue in Poway, Calif., started firing, and didn’t stop until one person was dead and three others were injured. (This came just months after the Pittsburgh shooting that killed 11.)
Adams and Gabbai commiserated as they grieved, and wondered aloud: How can we respond to something like this? They agreed that there had to be an outlet — a way to throw positivity into the face of anti-Semitism, to express one’s Jewish identity — “but we didn’t know of anything at that time that existed,” Adams says.
“So we said, ‘Why don’t we just start it ourselves?’”
STORIES FROM AROUND THE GLOBE
Two days after the Poway tragedy, on April 29, 2019, “Why I Wear My Star” was born on Instagram.
Adams went first.
“I wear my star for the Jews of the world who don’t have the freedom or the safety to do so themselves. I wear my star for every marginalized person, yearning for equality and justice. I wear my star to honor the 12 American Jewish lives that have been taken from us by hateful people recently. I wear my star because I am a proud Jew, and I wear it because it gives me hope for the future. I wear my star as an act of persistence.”
Then Gabbai shared her testimony.
Then they told everyone they knew who might care about it. Friends from their synagogues, friends from BBYO, friends from the StandWithUs program. Then they told those friends to tell their friends. Within two days, they had published two more people’s stories and already had hundreds of followers on the Instagram account; they could tell they were on to something, so they launched a companion page on Facebook.
“Why I Wear My Star’s” audience has consisted largely of teenage girls. But the campaign also has featured some surprising diversity and depth.
There was the story of a woman whose family had left Ethiopia for Israel when she was a child, and had to spend two years in limbo in Sudan waiting to safely complete the journey, all the while hiding their Judaism. Today, she is a proud Zionist Jew who has dedicated her life to teaching others about her story and traditions.
There was the man from Halle, Germany, who explained why he wears a Star of David necklace even though he’s not Jewish: “Hatred will lose. I wear my star to support humanity.”
And the Jewish woman, a native of France, who lamented the fact that she doesn’t even own one. “The people I know who own a Star of David don’t wear it because, by wearing it, they expose themselves to possible looks, reactions, agressions (sic). ... I am not proud to say I would not be safe if I wear a Star of David in some parts of Paris.”
(Adams points out that the climate is only moderately better in the U.S., citing a recent survey of American Jews by the American Jewish Committee that found nearly a third of more than 1,200 respondents said they avoided “publicly wearing, carrying or displaying things that might help people identify” them as Jewish.)
She realizes, though, that it’s going to take more than just words and photos to move the needle — and she’s been working to transform “Why I Wear My Star” into more than just a social-media movement.
IT’S ALL ABOUT TIKKUN OLAM
Recently, Adams and Gabbai unveiled an informal leadership program, with an eye toward helping other young people (from middle school to college-age) lead discussions in their communities focused on promoting Jewish pride and combating anti-Semitism.
It could be through a lesson on the history of anti-Semitism. It could be centered around an activity that involves making bracelets for kids with the Star of David on them. It could be simply working with aspiring leaders to help them develop public-speaking skills.
The whole point, Adams says, is to make a difference.
“As much as we want followers for our account, we really care less about that than about finding good stories to tell and helping people lead the programs.”
This weekend, Adams and Gabbai are in Los Angeles for the StandWithUs International Conference, whose organizers invited the pair to be part of a panel discussion specifically because of their work on “Why I Wear My Star.” The panel is titled “Standing Up to Hate on Campus,” and they are the only high-schoolers participating.
But if you think Jewish issues are the only issues Adams is passionate about, think again.
She’s also leader of the environmental club and the diversity club at Charlotte Latin. She’s passionate about immigration justice, and has on multiple occasions visited the city’s Greyhound bus station in an effort to learn more about migrants coming to and going from Charlotte.
She also loves art. In December, more than a dozen works she created were part of an exhibit showcasing pieces by Latin seniors; one of hers was a quasi-memorial to the Parkland, Fla., high school shooting. And she took a photograph at Charlotte’s March for Our Lives in 2018, of a little girl holding up a sign that read, “Love Your Kids, Not Your Guns”; it was hung in a hallway of her high school, but one day she found that it had been torn down and replaced with a piece that championed the right to bear arms.
She wrote her college essay about how “we can have both of our opinions next to each other. We don’t have to take away someone’s voice to have that be seen.”
(Adams is in the process of narrowing down her college choices now, and plans to major in international studies and political science.)
Generally speaking, her outlook on life is simple: tikkun olam, which is a concept in Judaism that translates to “repairing the world.”
As for her outlook on “Why I Wear My Star”?
“I don’t know how long it’s gonna last,” she says.
“But we’re gonna keep working on it, until things get better.”
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