There are similarities in the Jewish and Muslim calendars—to start with, they are both lunar. The Jewish and Muslim new years overlapped as well. And like last year, Yom Kippur coincides with fasting for Ashura, which is the 10th day of the first month in the Islamic calendar.
Ashura comes from the Arabic word for ten (عشرة), which shares a root with the Hebrew word for ten as well (עשר). For the Sunni Muslims with whom I live, Ashura marks the day that God saved Moses and his followers from Pharoah.
According to Muslim tradition, when Muhammad (peace be upon him) saw Jews fasting on this day (for Yom Kippur), he also told his people to fast, to thank God for creating a path in the Red Sea. For Jews, Yom Kippur focuses explicitly on atonement and repentance—it is known as the holiest day of the Jewish year.
Shortly before the death of prophet Muhammad (PBUH), the “Jewish-type calendar adjustments of the Muslims became prohibited,” and Ashura became a distinct holiday from Yom Kippur. Yet Jews and many Sunni Muslims still both fast on this day.
Social versus Spiritual
So, what does this have to do with my time here in Morocco as a Peace Corps Volunteer? Well, like many PCVs, living in a village where Islam is a big part of life here has of course driven me to reflect on my own religious identity, faith, and resolve. As the New Year begins, celebrating Ashura and Yom Kippur simultaneously embodies this experience.
Back home, as bigoted groups take the center of national news, and activists have to take on identity-based hate speech, the social aspect of my Jewish identity in an American context seems to take a front seat. While I undoubtedly benefit from white privilege, anti-Semitism is still a nuanced, subtle reality especially as “hatred toward Jews has been deeply intertwined with the idea of Jews having unique sorts of advantages.”
But in my day-to-day life in Morocco, religion is not a matter of identity, but rather, of faith and belief. Now I’m realizing that when I remove the social aspect of my Jewishness, there doesn’t seem to be much left. That’s especially as a lot of people I hang out with here pray on their own every day, read the Quran, and base many of their daily beliefs and actions on the teachings of the prophet. Meanwhile, I’m still trying to clarify my definition of God.
Collective History and Nationalism
There are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, so like in any religion, everyone interprets and practices their beliefs in vastly different ways. Specifically, for many of my friends in my Peace Corps site, faith is not something you observe when it’s convenient, but rather, a sacred code that dictates how to live and view your life. They live out their beliefs with friends and family, but also on their own in their daily routines and perceptions.
My closest friends here know that I am Jewish, but I’m not sure they understand what it means to me back home. Most have never heard of the Holocaust (although they do study the rise of the Nazis in school). While I was explaining to one of my friends what it was, she asked me, “but why did they do this?” and I grew emotional. This collective history of oppression has been a huge part of my Jewish education.
The next aspect of Judaism for me had centered on Zionism as an uncomplicated and strong reflection of Jewish identity. As I developed my own independent ideals and worldview, I stopped believing that being a “good Jew” and being Zionist go hand in hand. And I’m definitely not the only millennial Jew that thinks this way.
Looking back at my days of religious preschool, bat mitzvahs, sleep-away camp, Jewish youth groups, Hebrew school, Hillel gatherings, weddings, shivas, and brit milahs, it’s safe to say I have a strong sense of Jewish identity. For that, I have to thank my family, community, upbringing, opportunity, and eventually, personal choice.
But when I’m alone, without my Jewish community, without people that know my collective history, without any personal sense of Jewish patriotism, I’m only left with my faith—the core belief, spiritual, stuff. Now that I’m looking at it closely, naked, under a microscope, in a sea of other people’s unwavering faiths, I realize just how wavering my own faith is.
Wavering Faith is Still Faith
What do I do with this realization? Clearly, I’m at a crossroads in my, to sound hokey, “spiritual journey.” I could realize that religion is indeed not a “biological reality” and be atheist or agnostic, which would certainly make things easier. I could start from scratch and research all religions, and see which ones I like best. After all, at 26, I’m certainly old enough to pick my own religion, instead of the one chosen for me at birth.
Except—I never did feel pressured to be Jewish, anyway. My community and family, for as long as I can remember, always encouraged me to think critically and choose my own path.
Abandoning my religion would feel like I’m letting Judaism’s emphasis on questioning, doubting, and learning lead me away from Judaism itself. And, to not be Jewish would feel like turning my back on the community I grew up in and the self I’ve created. It’s when I’m critiquing my religion, and observing it alongside friends and family, that I feel most Jewish.
It may not seem like the most solid foundation, but for now, it’s enough to keep me here—and that’s what counts. Maybe that’s what faith is—that simple, unexplainable force that makes you keep going, even when there aren’t so many tangible reasons to do so.
Concealing and Atoning
While the word Kippur means atonement (hence Yom Kippur), the root K-P/F-R in Arabic and Hebrew scripts can actually mean to “ conceal or deny,” as in, denying one’s religion. This possible connection between denying one’s religion and atoning seems perfect for what’s in my head this year.
This Yom Kippur, as I fast alongside many of my faithful Muslim brothers and sisters, I will aim to begin a more forgiving, yet closer, relationship with Judaism. I no longer want to let doubt lead me to denying or concealing my faith overall.
It is precisely that doubt, and talking about religion with my wise and admirable Muslim friends here, that push me to engage with my own faith and grow from it. This internal struggle with faith, by the way, is also a major aspect of Islam, internal Jihad—a struggle against “those basic inner forces which prevent man from becoming human in accordance with his primordial and God-given nature.”
The Struggle is Real
And for me, it really is a struggle to reconcile an ancient body of understanding with real, present-day life. Listening to the podcast On Being, I was inspired by the interviewee Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, who said:
Part of the reason why I’m not an Orthodox Jew but a flexidox or polydox and otherwise-Jew, and not just “Jew,” is that I do believe in evolution, not just of our species and the world, but of concepts. And if the Bible and the Jewish values that have sustained my people for thousands of years believe that women were subservient and that sexuality was of a specific type and that types of worship included slaughtering animals, we’ve evolved. That’s not where we are. So we need to read some of those sacred words as metaphor, as bygone models, as invitations for creativity, and for sort of the second meaning and the second naïveté here that still retrieves this text as useful and these narratives as holy, not as literal.
I believe in evolution and recognize that sexuality and gender are spectrums. I might not be able to keep kosher, celebrate Shabbat every Friday, or attend Torah study. It may seem to you that I’m picking and choosing what I want, as if God’s commandments are just an open buffet.
But unlike my ancestors, I’m lucky in that, the only one who can prevent me from being Jewish is myself. It’s with this understanding that I will keep learning about religion, having belief be a part of my life, and connecting with my past and future. My own reality and the Jewish texts will never be mutually exclusive, because my own interpretation of religion gives me not dogma, but rather, a platform for freedom to further explore.
So this year, it is with continued faith, forgiveness, and learning, that I choose Judaism anew. And for that, I have to thank a caring, inclusive, and humble Muslim community in Sidi Bouzid, Morocco for challenging me to do so and showing me what true faith looks like.
Just like the U.S. government was founded on racism and has been dominated by white men, the U.S. Peace Corps, and other government sponsored exchange programs, are also historically white. Today, I am a white Peace Corps Volunteer representing, and thus contributing to, a U.S. image that has been whitewashed around the world.
I think international exchange (and following, volunteer support) is crucial for bringing about social change both at home and around the world. Yet I can’t help make Peace Corps more inclusive, or the U.S.’s image less white, without acknowledging my own complicity in this current reality. I’m writing this post to explore my own place in the context of implicit racism in the international volunteering field, and to see what it means to be an ally for Volunteers of Color (VOC).
I first got the opportunity to travel at an early age, without having to think about border discrimination, racism overseas, or being questioned on my “Americanness.” My positive experiences abroad opened my world. Later on, they motivated me to pursue a career in international affairs and the public sector. And with the relevant unpaid internships and continued study abroad experiences, I could.
My racial and class privileges gave me easy access to enriching opportunities, which came at the expense of others, for example those that had to work during summers to put themselves through school. My experiences became assets essential to finding a job in the non-profit sector, surrounded by many Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs). I knew Peace Corps well—it was part of my circle. I was confident that my Peace Corps application would be accepted for Morocco, even after I had turned down another Peace Corps invitation a year earlier.
Race and identity was not something I had to think about before coming here. My privilege is what made my road here visible and smooth, and as a current Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV), and I still don’t have to think about race during my service. Yet for current Volunteers of Color, stepping foot into a historically, and still majority, white volunteer pool, means that my own voice has the power to marginalize.
Focusing on Diversity; Why Now?
In talking about diversity, especially as a white volunteer, it’s important for me to ask why this focus is happening now and realize that before, the white voices at the Peace Corps table had the privilege to ignore how race and racism affects volunteer experience. The small increase in racial diversity is only recent and comes from long-fought battles and hard work from both Peace Corps leaders of Color and Volunteers of Color.
I can’t tell you the racial makeup of the first volunteer classes (because, surprise, surprise, I couldn’t even find statistics on that). But I can tell you that today 29% of volunteers identify as minorities, which is a drastic increase from earlier years. In 2012, Peace Corps finally made a Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan and previous director Carrie Hessler-Radelet has talked at length about efforts to reach communities of color in the U.S.
Today, because of the whitewashed image of an American, the (historically and present-day) majority-white makeup of PCVs, combined with discrimination in-country, the (still small number of) Volunteers of Color have to suffer the burden of multi-layered racism that I, as a white volunteer, benefit from. You can understand more about VOC experiences, in general and with racism specifically, by reading blogposts from VOCs. I have highlighted some pieces from fellow Volunteers at the end of this post.
Obviously, the burden of the racism should not just be on those that face it, but rather, on those white volunteers who privilege from it. Yet white privilege still operates in Morocco—I don’t have to actively seek to change the Peace Corps support structures, because my experience, voice, and service is the historic and present default for Peace Corps Volunteers and Americans abroad.
Reframing Volunteer Support
Creating more effective volunteer support mechanisms for marginalized PCVs is essential for bridging Peace Corps’ goals on paper with the daily realities of each volunteer seeking to carry out those goals. Instead of assuming that volunteers are monolithic, selfless robots serving this overall goal, organizations need to look at volunteers as full people, and members of a two-way exchange who are constantly learning and growing.
And people need other people, allies, in order to thrive as volunteers. Because most PCVs are still white, and because any group of Americans carry with them the complexities of U.S. racism, it will take intentional effort from me, as a white volunteer, to support rather than marginalize; there is no neutral ground in this unequal status quo.
Still, institutional changes to include and support Volunteers of Color have been limited. Peace Corps Headquarters has been providing “Intercultural Competence, Diversity, and Inclusion” (ICD&I) training for its American and local staff. It wants its senior leadership at posts to “encourage the development of support networks that promote diversity and inclusion.” In Peace Corps Morocco specifically, there are diversity conversation sessions during Pre-Service Training, In-Service Training, and Mid-Service Training, facilitated by our Volunteer Support Network (VSN).
Outside of these 3-4 collective hours over 27 months, white PCVs like me can continue avoiding race, and perspectives from PCVs of Color, if they so choose. There are not other institutionalized avenues in place to unpack how racism and white privilege play out within our volunteer staj and during our service. Most of the time, volunteer support comes in the form of contacting Peace Corps staff. And feeling vulnerable due to racism is not something I have to think of approaching anyone about.
Whether it be a designated staff person in every country specialized in providing support to Volunteers of Color, special retreats for Volunteers of Color or marginalized volunteers in general, or regional meet-ups to discuss these issues in a structured way, it is clear that the ICD&I trainings and diversity sessions are only beginnings. Carrie Hessler-Radelet said herself, in an outgoing interview, that “we have made a lot of progress” on the ICD&I Initiative, “but we’re not completely done, we still have work to do.”
Working on Fellow support for Atlas Corps, I wanted to help incoming volunteers persist amidst the same American xenophobia, Islamophobia, and racism that I myself got to avoid. As I wrote in another blogpost entitled “Learning to be an Ally,” I quickly learned that since ignorance and bigotry affects Fellows in different ways based on intersectionalities of identity and service like gender, location of service, traditions, class, religion, or ability, there is no one prescribed solution for how to provide support—and there is no way to shield someone from a reality that you yourself don’t live in.
The same is true when it comes to being an ally for Volunteers of Color in the Peace Corps. While there’s no one solution for creating inclusivity and equitable support, examining my own privilege, complicity, even ignorance, as a white Volunteer, opening opportunities to hear VOC perspectives, and lending an empathetic ear, are some small ways I can help centralize this conversation in a way that doesn’t sideline other voices.
Indeed, the systemic racism that has always existed in the U.S. is a reality that white progressive circles back home are just recently acknowledging. As a white PCV I must remember that I’m serving in an institution that’s also just learning to talk about and fight racism as it becomes more diverse—because it was racism that excluded People of Color from the Peace Corps Volunteer and leadership pools in the first place.
Racism isn’t just people riding down the streets in white hoods and tiki torches chanting hate speech. And I can’t single-handedly disband the KKK by looking at my computer screen. But I can actively keep trying to make Peace Corps a more just, less racist institution by promoting critical and inclusive volunteer support. Such mechanisms are essential if the Peace Corps hopes to reach its ideal of representing the “American people,” rather than just the “American government” and the groups that it privileges (me).
Some Relevant Blog Posts on VOC Experiences with Race & Racism
I was pretty “nishan” (Arabic slang for straight-laced) growing up. Measuring myself against an imagined norm, I developed holes in my confidence. I wondered what might be wrong with me, since I wanted to be an entomologist, preferred staying inside and playing truth or truth on Saturday nights, I never had a boyfriend, bikinis made me feel exposed, and 100% of my close friends were girls. Honestly, I haven’t changed that much since high school (probably why I relate so much with angsty, coming-of-age books and movies #bildungsroman).
The traits that made me question my normality in the U.S. are really more the societally accepted norm here in Sidi Bouzid. Compared to some other Americans, you really might think I’d fit in well in this Moroccan village. But socially constructed norms have a funny way of never actually making you feel normal. In my current community, I’m just as weird against my Moroccan community’s norms, but for completely different reasons.
Here, some things I carried over from my life in the U.S. make me “hashuma” (shameful)—how I love having a glass of wine and venting, my views on dating before marriage, my propensity for sundresses, and the (from time to time) mixed gender company I keep. Indeed, one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced here is determining when I should hold onto my own norms, and when I need to respect the norms of the people that surround me.
I’ve been toeing this line by untangling my values from the norms that, if stripped away, aren’t actually so important to my identity. A quick Google definition search tells me that norms are “a standard or pattern, especially of social behavior, that is typical or expected of a group.” Values are “a person's principles or standards of behavior; one's judgment of what is important in life.” A lot of the time, this exercise is easy, and I don’t feel like I have to compromise my values by adjusting. That’s because the friends I’ve made here really do share most of these values.
I am happy to report that we raised the grant money for repainting and refurbishing our center for women and youth in Sidi Bouzid. Members of a local youth association have been working for hours each day to get the job done before the new school year starts. I love working with them, because like me, they value teamwork, volunteerism, and helping their community.
As we worked into the night, I texted a friend, asking if I could come over and have a bite to eat. Instead, she made and brought dinner to all the members of the association working late. Like me, she values generosity and sharing. And this morning, as my neighbor knocked on my door to see where I’ve been, I was reminded once again how much concern my friends in Sidi Bouzid have for the welfare of others. Like me, they also value loyalty and being there for one another.
I can go on to my friends here about how much I miss my mom, and show people the pictures of what my family back home has been up to. That’s because like me, people here also value family and community. It’s safe to say that most people here are in the same page as me in terms of core values, which is what makes me feel so welcome.
Am I Normal?
Of course, there are times when I feel like I have to choose between adopting new norms or staying true to my values. I was faced with such a question last week, when I had some friends staying over, one of whom was male. Since I have my own house, I had the choice of letting everyone in or asking the guy to stay somewhere else. I knew hosting him would be hashuma.
Yet those of you who know me from home, know that hospitality is a value that I hold very dear. I can’t turn a friend away. A few girlfriends voiced their disapproval directly to me, and I’m sure many more people in the community did so behind my back. But I didn’t even think twice about welcoming my male friend into my home, and I would do so again.
Choosing to follow my own norms, especially when they contrast with others, is an opportunity to realize and express what I value most. As most people here ask me when I’m going to get married, I’m learning how important my independence is to me. When I hear a friend making a comical nod to Hitler, I speak up about its inappropriateness—I value calling out bigotry rather than keeping a low profile. As many people here spend most of their time together, I’m realizing how I do value some alone time.
While I might sound confident, that couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, if I hear someone say something I do is hashuma, I become anxious that everyone in my community will stigmatize me. This fear is compounded by the small, interwoven nature of this community; similar to social circles at home, people here gossip, and things spread fast. I’ve had a recurring vision of myself wearing a scarlet letter, cast out for all the hashuma things that I’ve either talked about with friends about or acted on at site.
Is it possible for me to live freely while maintaining the relationships that are literally everything to me here in Sidi Bouzid? After all, another one of my top values is openness. How can I have genuine friendships without being 100% open about the traits that make up who I am?
Learning to Relax
But alas, I have made real, evolving relationships, without feeling like I’m hiding my true self. Someone might think something I’m doing is hashuma –they might even talk about it with me, or gossip about it with someone else. Yet the more I interact with my community, and the more I open up to friends, the more I realize that, while social and cultural norms can be mean and unforgiving, my real friends are not.
Now that I’ve been here for almost a year, it’s safe to say that to my friends, I’m more than just my “hashuma” traits. And regardless of the Moroccan norms and rules we learned about in pre-service training (PST), every person here is more than the norms and rules of their society—like me, they are full, complex people with varying values, boundaries, and perceptions.
I need to give myself the room, and my friends the trust, to maintain respect for their cultural norms while knocking down my own guard at the same time. These are not the people that will shut me out; only my own fear and anxiety can do that. I feel confident now that I can hold onto my values even when it means being selective in the norms to which I’m adhering.
It’s important to recognize that I’m in a position of privilege as an American. People expect me to be different, and so I can more easily get away with playing by my own rules. In that sense, it is easier for me to hold onto my own values than for someone else who will be here long term. But it is exactly that—the shifting of environments—that has forced me to really consider how fickle norms can be, and what those values are (plug for exchange programs).
I’ve learned so much from my community, especially my counterparts; I’ll save that for another post. But we don’t learn just about others through international and intercultural exchange—we also develop and learn about ourselves. Moving from one set of norms to another is hard and stressful, especially for us anxious and people-pleasing types. But it is worth it. It’s making me more confident in my own skin, with a clearer idea of what values I hold most closely, absent the norms and judgments in both societies that always held me back.
My name is Julie, in Turkish it's Jülide. Right now I'm serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco, and I'll write my thoughts here!