Growing up in Philadelphia, Melissa Shuster was surrounded by Jewish neighbors who enjoyed Shabbat dinner in their homes and walked to synagogue together the next morning. Then, she and her husband moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where most of the children in her sons’ Jewish preschool classes were not Jewish. In our conversation, Melissa shares how she instills in her children a sense of Jewish pride and how the local public school reacted to an anti-Semitic hate crime.
What inspired you to travel to Israel with the JWRP?
I had never been to Israel, and I always wanted to go. I was also looking for a greater connection to my Jewish identity. I grew up in a strong Jewish community in Philadelphia, where so many of my neighbors, classmates, and teachers were Jewish. In Louisville, the Jewish community is much smaller and we are always aware that we’re a minority. I wanted to broaden my Jewish community in Louisville, reflect on my priorities, and revisit traditions that used to be a natural part of my life.
How did MOMentum impact you?
I loved being in Israel. I felt so comfortable there, knowing that I was no longer the minority. I visited places that I’d only read about, like Masada and the Kotel, and the tour guides enriched each visit with their stories. My nephew died in Israel about one-and-a-half years ago, and I wasn’t able to attend his funeral. My City Leader made it possible for me, along with a few of my JWRP sisters, to visit his graveside at night. She also led a short memorial service, which I live-streamed for my sister.
As mothers, we don’t have much time to focus on our growth. I loved having the chance to be introspective about my life, surrounded by a great group of women. Back in Louisville, my group meets every month to continue our learning about Jewish life. In addition to ramping up our Shabbat and holiday celebrations at home, I decided to join the Louisville Day School advisory committee, which seeks to reopen the local Jewish day school. After experiencing MOMentum, I feel even more excited to help get the school off the ground.
What is it like to be Jewish in Louisville, Kentucky?
We have four synagogues, a local Chabad, and a Jewish Community Center. There are a lot of Jewish events happening in town. Because the community is spread out, there aren’t Jewish neighborhoods. One of my sons is one of six Jewish children out of thousands in his school. My son in high school took an elective course about the Holocaust and found that he was able to answer a few questions about Judaism that his teacher couldn’t. My kids need to submit a note each time they want to take off for a Jewish holiday, but no one ever gives them a hard time. When swastikas were painted on a car outside one of my son’s schools, the school reacted swiftly by launching a campaign about tolerance.
What are some ways that you’ve fostered your family’s Jewish pride while living in a town with a small Jewish population?
When we first moved to Louisville, I was at Gymboree with my son who was then 10 months old. I heard the mother next to me call her daughter, “Tova” and I immediately asked her, “Do you go to the JCC?” It was like my pick-up line! She invited my family to her mother-in-law’s home for Rosh Hashanah. Since then, we’ve created a Jewish community of 10-15 families, who celebrate the Jewish holidays and lifecycle events together.
My husband and I also send our kids to a Jewish camp in Indiana, which instills in them Jewish pride. We share our Jewish traditions with our neighbors, offering them challah and inviting them for Shabbat dinner. When we travel, we seek out other Jewish communities. We talk about Jewish people in the news, prepare different food together for Shabbat and Jewish holidays, and read Jewish-themed books together, thanks to PJ Library!
In our home, we celebrate Judaism and feel proud of our heritage.
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