From Mumbai to San Francisco Hillel, by way of Oklahoma

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For as long as she can remember, Sasha Joseph has had to explain her Jewish identity to others.

Growing up in Mumbai, she often had to describe the Jewish rituals she and her family practiced every week. And when she moved to Oklahoma with her mom at age 14, she was faced with even more questions.

A month ago, Joseph was hired by San Francisco Hillel to get more students involved. Her title is engagement associate, and with the new position she will continue to challenge what it means to be Jewish.

Joseph’s family has lived in India for several decades, and most of her relatives still live there today. She said that while Indians sometimes were confused about her religion, she never felt out of place.

“There are about 3,000 Jews in India, and they say that India is one of the only places where Jews weren’t persecuted for being Jews,” Joseph says. “When I was growing up and would walk to synagogue, I would pass a mosque, and the calls of prayer were going on while we were singing Shabbat prayers; everything happened together.

 

Sasha Joseph

“When it was Rosh Hashanah, we gave sweets to all of our neighbors and not just our Jewish friends. I never felt different or ostracized because I was Jewish. People were more curious to find out why my name was Sasha and not an Indian name.”

 

Joseph, who was raised Conservative but now identifies as Reform, always found it very rewarding to explain her religious identity. “It helped strengthen my Judaism because I got to explain the principles behind the holidays and traditions,” she says. “When you’re asked questions, you get to go back and think about rituals more critically.”

Joseph says the Jewish community in India is different from Jewish communities elsewhere. For example, Jews in India often take their shoes off before going into the prayer space or synagogue, which originates from Moses taking his shoes off before speaking to God.

“It was really interesting to tell my Hindu friends that we do the same practice as them but for different reasons,” she says.

Joseph spent her high school years in the United States, starting with a year in Tulsa, Oklahoma, then two in San Antonio, Texas, and then back to Tulsa for her senior year of high school. In those cities, and at college at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Joseph recalls many people being shocked upon finding out that she was Jewish.

“I actually love the confusion because I get to break the stereotype of every Jew being Ashkenazi,” she says. “Oklahoma is a very Christian state — I got told sometimes that I was going to hell — but for the most part it was very accepting. People were intrigued about how Jews even came to India and the history of it.”

At college, Joseph connected with Hillel in her junior year, when she was the president of her sorority. She ended up going on a Birthright trip to Israel, and while completing a master’s degree in human relations, she worked part-time as a social justice and campus coordinator at Oklahoma Hillel, experience that helped her land the job at San Francisco Hillel.

Ollie Benn, executive director of S.F. Hillel, which serves several area college campuses, is excited about how Joseph will challenge college students’ preconceptions of Judaism, particularly on a campus where “over-simplified notions of skin color-based identity” sometimes lead to strife.

“Sasha has an incredibly strong identity — both as someone who’s Jewish and as someone from India —and that will hopefully challenge people’s preconceived notions of what it means to be a Jew,” he says.

In addition to her new job, Joseph has been chosen, along with 13 others, to participate in Hillel International’s Ezra Fellowship program. That means she has a “high Jewish literacy,” Benn says, and will be expected to “engage students” on that level.

“She’s not just here to make sure the students have a good time, but also to include educational opportunities in their experience at Hillel,” Benn says.

To that end, Joseph has been working on some ideas, such as chat sessions that deals with current events. “Hot Food, Hot Topics” is the working title.

“I want to create not just a safe space but a brave space where people can say that they don’t agree with someone,” she says.

Another part of her job will be tearing down the misconception of less-affiliated Jewish students that Hillel is not for them.

“I want to make sure they have a great college experience and a place off campus where they can come and feel comfortable,” she says.