Sunglass Warehouse is a brand for people who live life to the fullest. Our customers are just normal people, but they know how to find the extraordinary in the ordinary, and turn everyday experiences into great adventures. SW: Profiles is an interview blog series that shares these unique stories about our customers. From a tattoo shop owner directing horror films, to a young tech professional searching for his Jewish roots, these seemingly different people share a common thread that we’ll uncover together.

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Jon Corwin is one of those people who makes you feel like you’ve known them for years. Fortunately for me, I have known Jon for years, which made this interview even more interesting. Despite being a fairly open and forthcoming person, Jon spent years of his life trying to bury and hide an important piece of himself from everyone — including his closest friends.

What was he trying to hide? His religious heritage — being Jewish. Although he was raised Jewish, he struggled to identify as a Jew until later in life, for a number of reasons we explore in this interview.

Our interview with Jon chronicles his journey through the ups and downs of faith. As you dive into it, you’ll see both harsh realities and silver linings, crude villains and valiant heroes. What I took away from talking to Jon, however, and what I hope you’ll take away from this interview, is that what makes the most impact on our lives is not necessarily the places we go or the events that take place, but the people we allow and welcome into our circles.

Keep reading, and I think you’ll see what I mean.

What was growing up like for you? Tell us about your childhood.

I was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. My dad was raised Jewish and my mom converted to Judaism prior to marrying him. My mom wasn’t all that religious growing up but as she learned more about Judaism through my father, she found a lot of the main components of Judaism really resonated with her — the value placed on education, the familial structure, and in general, the values. For these reasons among others, they chose to raise my sister and me in a Reform Jewish household as well.

fam and jonJon and his parents at a college swim meet in 2009

Can you explain what “Reform” means? Is that the typical language you’d use in conversation?  

Yes, absolutely. Like other faiths, there are various denominations of Judaism. Reform is a relatively progressive and modern denomination most popular in the United States. Other denominations include (but are not limited to) Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox.

In the Jewish community, people might ask you where you grew up and what synagogue you went to. Based on the synagogue, people can usually determine which denomination of Judaism you practice or identify with.

Even Reform Judaism exists on a spectrum in terms of the ways in which people practice. But growing up, we were pretty relaxed. We didn’t keep kosher. We attended synagogue some weeks for Shabbat services but our attendance wasn’t necessarily a regular thing.

I did, however, go to Hebrew school through grade school and middle school. After finishing Hebrew school, most kids have a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah. I had mine when I was 13 and I’d say that was when I most actively practiced my faith.

jon bar mitzvahbar mitzvah 2Jon (age 13) during his bar mitzvah in June 2001

I’m curious about your social circle during that time. When I was growing up, a lot of my friends had two distinct groups of friends — their school friends, and their church friends, and they were rarely intertwined. I remember them being somewhat distinct cohorts.

That actually wasn’t the case for me. I had a really diverse group of friends in middle school, which I think was what brought us all together. It was me, an African American friend, a Cuban friend, an Asian friend, and a few others who were in the minority.

Religion didn’t occupy a lot of our mindshare at that time, and it wasn’t being played back to us within our social circle, so it wasn’t an area of focus. So I fell out of any sort of routine I had developed in Hebrew school.

I’d attend synagogue for the High Holy Days (e.g. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, or Passover) — but not much else. My parents didn’t pressured me either. There was never any twisting of arms. It was an open invitation and I was always welcome to come along, but I never had to.

That’s great. It sounds like you were sort of going through the motions, hitting all the religious milestones you were supposed to hit, like going to Hebrew school and having a bar mitzvah. But what happened next, what was high school like?

In high school, even fewer of the students at my school were Jewish. And I think with it being a large public school, it was a bit more conservative and less diverse.

Yeah, I mean Louisville is a metro area, but I feel like as a city it still embodies some traditional Southern values, right?

I wouldn’t argue with that statement. I went through about a year and a half, my freshman and sophomore years, dealing with pretty intense anti-semitic bullying. For example, there was an instance my freshman year during gym class when a group of kids turned off the lights in the locker room and just socked me in the stomach. They left the lights off and I was just sort of left there to feel my way out in the dark.

There were other smaller incidents too, including a time during lunch when they would pass my table and point and say things like, “Oh, there’s the Jew.” I sometimes think this kind of verbal abuse hurt worse.

That’s insane. It’s hard to imagine kids being that mean, but I know it happens. Aside from just being bullies, could you figure out, at the time, why these kids had singled you out? Or decided that because you were Jewish, they had to pick on you? I realize that’s sort of trying to analyze a behavior that, at it’s core, is totally irrational, but I’m just curious how you felt.

It’s hard to say. The one common thread that this cohort of bullies shared was that they all went to the same church, believe it or not. That made a huge impact on me. I was already tight-lipped about my faith and then when these incidents of bullying started it just confirmed my reservations. I think I naturally came to the conclusion that the more vocal I am about my religion, the more harm comes my way.

It all finally came to a head after my sophomore year. I approached my parents that summer and told them how unhappy I was at school. They were of course really supportive and I was fortunate enough to be able to transfer to another smaller private school just before junior year.

This school immediately felt familiar — it was the same dynamic I had growing up with lots of kids from diverse backgrounds. There was less than 40 in my graduating class, so it was a really tight-knit group.

I felt like I had escaped the warfare and ignorance of my previous high school, but the torment had sort of left its mark. Even at my new school, I didn’t openly talk about being Jewish. I didn’t go to synagogue for a few years following that, and I didn’t identify as a Jew. I just disassociated from it for a period of time.

louisville graduationJon and friends at high school graduation

If someone asked you about your faith or brought it up, how did you handle it? What did you say?

I would have said I’m non-religious. Within my close group of friends, I may have mentioned my Jewish background in passing, but it wasn’t a focal point.

It was something I just put on the back-burner because I still had the dialogue going that the more I take ownership of this religion, the more harm that comes my way.

There were a few people in my life who I felt I could open up to. If I encountered another Jew, the isolation I felt almost became a connecting point. Usually they understood where I was coming from.

If we fast forward to my college years, my swim coach was Jewish. So as you can imagine, he quickly became a prominent figure in my life. He was the person I could go to and open up to about how I was feeling, what was going on in my life, encounters I had with anti-semitism. His mentorship and guidance were pivotal in those years of my life.

Can you give us an example of something that happened in college? It seems like you were physically bullied in high school, but I think what you experienced in college was a little more subtle, right?

They were mostly just slanderous comments that play off Jewish stereotypes. There weren’t targeted attacks similar what I experienced in high school; just snide remarks and anti-semitic jokes around campus.

Yikes. Sounds like the type of prejudice that the people doing it don’t even think twice about, but when it hits you, it’s like … seriously, guys?!

Exactly. I felt like, not only do I not understand these stereotypes, but I don’t identify with them either.

So I continued to downplay my Judaism throughout my college years. If someone asked, I usually dodged the question or would have said I was agnostic or even atheist at the time. My swim coach was a true champion for me, but I still wasn’t quite ready to take the leap in saying ‘this is who I am and I’m proud of it.’

jon swimmingJon at a swim meet in college

Fast forward after college graduation, and I’m working in the Indianapolis tech community through a program called the Orr Fellowship. Through the program I made a ton of great friends and one of them, Molly, is Jewish.

And Molly, if you knew her, she is passionate about everything, especially her Jewish faith. I immediately hit it off with her, even though it wasn’t Judaism that forged our friendship. We just frequented the same circles and enjoyed hanging out with each other. But I kept observing how Judaism played such a major role in how she lived her life, and I was really drawn to that.

It was Molly who told me about Birthright.

What is Birthright?

Birthright is a 2-week trip that any person of the Jewish faith can take between the ages of 18-26. It’s a gift for you to take an educational trip to Israel with around 40 of your Jewish peers. Molly told me that she wanted to go this summer because her trip expired the next year. And oh, by the way, she said, yours is going to expire too, do you want to come with me?

We continued to discuss it and eventually pulled the trigger.

birthrightJon and Molly in Israel, 2015

That’s awesome. Tell me about the trip itself. What was it like?

As I mentioned, there were 40 other participants from all over the U.S. on our trip. Everyday was different, but the structure was pretty set. We’d get up early every morning, hop on a bus, go to a historical sight, have lunch, and then the afternoons were always dedicated to some sort of adventurous outdoor activity like hiking, swimming, or just exploring the culture.

israel marketExploring the Shuk Hacarmel markets

drummer israelIsraeli drummer performing on the streets of Tel Aviv

the western wallThe Western Wall

We saw all of the “must-see” things if you’re a Jew visiting Israel — Jerusalem, the Western Wall, Mt. Sinai, Masada, the Holocaust museum — all of which were incredibly impactful. There were portions reserved for religious education throughout the trip, which was great for context as well.

It was such a cool experience to experience these things with so many other people my age too. It was the first time I surrounded by a group of my peers who have all gone through the same things as me. There was a night when we all shared personal stories of anti-semitism. Hearing those, I thought about how silly it seemed that I felt so alone going through all of this — but at the time I really did feel so isolated.

rock climbingClimbing Mount Arbel near Tiberius

It’s always amazing to me how being silent about something makes you feel even more alone. You assume that by sharing a thought, feeling, or belief, you’re going to be ostracized even more. But when you speak up about it, that’s when others start coming out of the woodwork and saying, “me too” …

Precisely. For me, the big takeaway from this trip was that I always pinned Judaism as a this thing I needed to become or to achieve, but in reality I’ve been Jewish all along — as manifest through my family, my values, my education, the way I treat others, and so on. My relationship and understanding of my faith will continue to evolve but I’m as much a Jew as any other Jew and I can take pride in that.

israelMemorial at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Remembrance Center

What a relief that must have been for you.

Absolutely. I felt as though all of my deep-rooted fears surrounding my faith were unfounded. And after realizing that, I became more comfortable sharing my faith with others. Opening up about being Jewish was an act of vulnerability and I built trust with others. It was a new part of me that others, especially my friends, were excited to learn about. It opened so many doors.

What advice would you give now to someone who may be struggling with a similar battle of their faith?

Seek community and don’t try to solve these problems alone. Find others you can talk to and lean on. Put that struggle out into the light, because fear doesn’t like it when you reveal it out in the open. If you actively put your fears out in the open, you stand a better chance of defeating them.

I realized that it was through conversations with my swim coach, with Molly, and my peers on Birthright, that I was actively processing these things. Hearing other’s stories about their faith helped guide me in my journey. And now, I can own my story and have my own voice. So, whatever it is you’re struggling with, get it out in the open.

 jon corwin