Leah Steerman wins Southern Jewish essay contest

by | May 18, 2023 | Other News

The Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience’s 2023 Middle School Essay contest’s first place winner is Leah Steerman of Virginia Beach. 

With the prompt, “If you were building a Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, which 3 things would you put in it?” MSJE, based in New Orleans, La., launched a contest that was open to all students (in fifth through eighth grades) in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. 

 Leah heard about the contest through Congregation Beth El, entered, and was notified of her win last month with a check and a certificate.  Her essay is posted on the museum’s website.

An honor student at Great Neck Middle School and a member of the National Junior Honor Society, Leah is a Strelitz International Academy alumnus. In the summer, she attends Capitol Camps.

 Leah’s family is from Philadelphia, Pa., making her a ‘first-generation Southerner.’ She is the daughter of Stephanie and Sam Steerman and the big sister to Alexa and Sam.  Leah will celebrate her Bat Mitzvah on June 17 at Congregation Beth El. 

 Mazel Tov to Leah and her family!

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My Southern Jewish Experience

In my family, I am the first generation to grow up with a Southern Jewish Experience. Here in Virginia Beach, the Jewish community is pretty small. My Hebrew school class has less than 10 kids and there are very few Jewish kids in my middle school. While being Jewish in a small southern community can be hard at times, I think it also means that we are like one big family.

If I were to build a Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, the first thing I would put in it would be a model of The Simon Family JCC. My mom likes to call it the “gateway to the Jewish community” because when we first moved here, we got involved and that’s where we met other Jewish families like ours. For many Jewish families that move to Virginia Beach, the JCC is their first stop to learn about Jewish life here. The JCC provides us and others with fun Jewish programming so we can connect with other Jewish families even if we live further apart.

The second thing I would put in my museum would be a t-shirt, pennant, and pictures from my Jewish overnight camp. Because my community is so small, I have to travel 5-6 hours to get to camp while other campers travel much shorter distances. Camp is the highlight of my summer. I met such amazing people there and immediately made life-long friendships. Camp is so incredibly special to my southern Jewish experience because I got to be with so many other Jewish kids my age and be surrounded by people with similar beliefs. Even though I live in a small southern Jewish community, when we pray together on Shabbat, we all know the same prayers and it unifies us. I think the best part of camp are the Israeli dances that we learn and do on Shabbat!

The last thing I would put in my museum would be newspaper clippings from 2021 when the Virginia Beach Public Schools were going to start the school year on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. My mom was one of the people helping to get the district to start after the holiday. We educated the school board and made them understand that we shouldn’t have to choose between religion and education. We weren’t helping just the Jewish community, but all religions whose holidays are often not taken into consideration. Thankfully, we were able to have the first day of school after Rosh Hashanah. Our little community was making history. This story was published in many Jewish newspapers, The Times of Israel, and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. It taught me that people should stand up for what they think is right.

The JCC model, the Jewish camp memorabilia, and the newspaper clippings from 2021 are my submission to the Southern Jewish Experience because they represent the place, the people, and the pride of my community.