You cannot kill my faith with a semi automatic.

Layah Shagalow
4 min readOct 9, 2023

*Written on the eve of the New Zealand Mosque Shootings.

Religion is a complicated topic. Just writing that sentence feels like bracing for impact. My whole life has been bracing for impact. And absorbing the impact more times than I’d like to believe.

On Thursday night I did something I don’t usually do. I tried to back out of a conversation about my Judaism. It’s unusual for me, my religious observance is something I am proud of, something I define myself by. I’ve never backed down or bowed out of an opportunity to present myself as such. But that night something came over me and I just wanted to talk about anything else.

The topic of my religious observance came up in conversation with someone I consider to be a friend and mentor, someone I look up to. He recommended I attend a certain design workshop being held over a weekend. I explained that being an Orthodox Jew, my observance of Shabbat means that I miss almost all of these types of weekend events. I realized that it was the first time I had mentioned being religious and it was news to him.

This man is one of the most genuine, truly accepting, humans I know. I had no reason to fear judgement or backlash, he was even trying to give me guidance in how to advocate for more accessible opportunities. He was right there with me. But the more he suggested I advocate for myself and other Jewish designers in my situation, the more defensive and shut down I became. I started to picture the conversations. The rhetoric I’ve become so used to hearing. While religion is definitely a barrier to entry that needs to be accounted for, it is not as sexy a conversation as others around physical disabilities or other similar issues of inclusion and accessibility. Like I told my friend, there is a lot less tolerance for choices of spiritual practice that involve religion.

Mostly, it’s a conversation I wanted to avoid because I am tired of being judged before being seen. I am tired of the stereotypes being projected onto me. Most people don’t realize I’m observant when they first meet me. Even though all the signs are there. I only wear skirts and you’ll find me in long sleeves even on the hottest summer days. I don’t shake hands with men and I can’t hang out from Friday night till after Shabbat ends on Saturday evening. I eat only Kosher food and my first name is Hebrew. But people look for familiarity in the people around them, so most of them miss the signs. It’s conflicting. On the one hand, I sometimes feel bad for not representing my Jewish-ness front and center, and on the other, sometimes it helps to be seen as one of the crowd. It gives me a chance to be seen for myself and not just as a projected stereotype. Then when people find out, they tend to reassess what they thought they knew about “people like me”. People who’ve made similar choices.

So I hadn’t spoken about it with my friend until now. And in a weird way telling him now felt a bit like coming out. I felt the fear of being judged and rejected. I felt the fear of it changing our friendship. I felt the need to defend myself. Not because of who he is, but because of the world we live in. He apologized when he sensed my discomfort, which made me feel even worse. I never want people to feel like they can’t talk to me about who I am. And afterwards I kicked myself for a reaction I didn’t know I had in me.

The next morning I woke up to the news that a white supremacist had killed 50 muslims in 2 mosques in New Zealand. Innocent people engaged in prayer, the most peaceful act on this earth, were gunned down in their most sacred space by a hateful racist. My heart broke. For those 50 muslims, for the 11 Jews killed in the same way in a Synagogue, just like the one I attended today, for the Sikhs in Wisconsin and the Christians in Charleston and anyone who has even seen their life abruptly slashed because of where they chose to pray. And I understood my reaction from the night before. Again, the world reinforced my reticence to talk about my religious choices. And I cried for all of us who suffer, from hatred, miseducation, racism, bigotry, anti-semitism, and any other form of marginalization or discrimination. For those of us who are forced to hide to survive.

But my religious choices are who I am. My Judaism is not just my choice, it is also my identity, my birthright and my history. My history is full of experiencing hate and evil and destruction at the hands of those who did not know us. My people have been systematically tortured and terminated throughout time. And yet we are still here, still proud. I am sorry that I was silent before, I am sorry that I thought I needed to hide. Because that is not the answer. So come, ask me, I want to help you learn. See me, not your biases. I am not afraid. You cannot kill my faith with your semi-automatic.

It has been 4 years since I wrote this piece and today I am choosing to publish it. Over 700 members of my family have been brutally murdered in Israel, the homeland of my people for thousands of years, in the largest single act of terror again Jews since the last day of holocaust. But with our faith in Gd, we have always survived, and with our faith in Gd we will continue to thrive. They may beat us and they may burn us, but they will never break us. Am Yisrael Chai.