Madeline Peterson grew up in what she calls the Midwestern Bible Belt.
Peterson, 25, is from Saugatuck, a small town in western Michigan, where there “is a church on every corner” and she felt like an outsider at her own synagogue. She now lives in Washington and works in public relations.
What was it like growing up Jewish in the Midwestern Bible Belt?
Most school activities had to do with [a Christian] youth group. Kids would go to vacation Bible camp. Some [unofficial] school dances were held at the church. Even though I’d join in, I always felt different. I remember being a part of this group in second grade, and I said something about being Jewish. The whole group of people started praying for me.
Before I started going to synagogue and learning about my Jewish identity, there were some issues at school with anti-Semitism. I believe it was just from their lack of knowledge. Most of the kids in my school didn’t know what a Jew was. In seventh grade, when they were teaching about the Holocaust, teachers didn’t know how to handle it with me. They actually told me to leave the room.
Toward the end of college, [because of] my experience growing up without a huge Jewish community, I also became interested in fighting back against anti-Semitism, the unique nature of anti-Semitism and how it comes across in public conversation. It was a whole number of things combined that really made me interested in public relations with the Jewish and pro-Israel community.
Your public relations job at Bluelight Strategies puts you at the center of organized Jewish life. How does that feel given your upbringing?
I’ve always been a little intimidated by the organized Jewish community because of my own experience as an outsider at my synagogue. I always just hung out on the periphery. And when I got to college, it wasn’t until I took a class [called] “The History of Jews and anti-Semitism” that I knew I wanted to study this or be engaged in it.
Now, with Bluelight, I’m working in a job where I interact with all different organizations in the Jewish community, all different types of politics, inside and outside the Jewish community. While I’m not at a point now where I’m actively involved in a synagogue, I feel like I’m a part of the Jewish community. I have a strong Jewish identity. It’s a full Jewish journey that I’ve really thrown myself into and loved.
How does your upbringing reconcile with your job?
I think it goes to show that a lot Jewish organizations are very concerned with keeping people in the Jewish community. But the Jewish story and the Jewish community is so great that people will be drawn to it. For me, learning about our heritage, outside of my family heritage, and the story of the Jewish people has been really inspiring. It goes to show how you can grow up in the boonies surrounded by a church on every corner — all reasons that I could have [said] I’m “Jew-ish” like I see a lot of people do — but [being Jewish] is something that is important to me.
We heard you deleted your MySpace account.
I Googled myself, found it and laughed. I sent a couple of screenshots to my sisters and then I promptly deleted it. It was me in sophomore year of high school, a bunch of selfies with a poor quality digital camera. n
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