The Jewish Hero’s Journey

Pesach has meant a lot of things for me over the years, but most of all, it meant adventure. No school. No regular routine. Lots of opportunity to go new places, meet new people and really live:

Ping pong tournaments.

Six Flags roller coasters.

All-you-can-eat tea rooms.

Traveling to far flung cities (aka, outside the New York Metropolitan area).

Adventure was always out there, with multitudes of ways to break outside my comfort zone. After all, it was just beyond that zone where the dreams I couldn’t even dream of could come true.

Last Pesach, the Adventure Factor quadrupled. At that point, I had made Aliyah, finished Ulpan, started a new job, was building new friendships, investing in already existing ones… life was just beginning to take root. And that’s when I realized, despite having plenty of adventures ahead of and behind me, I didn’t have the people that created the comfort that I needed to step outside my comfort zone.

Because those ping pong tournaments were plays every year at the same neighbors the neighbors.

And most of the time at Six Flags was spent on line with my school friends, and their friends from their communities and camp.

The all-you-can-eat tea rooms were full of new people, but it’s also where my friend and I would go to have late-night conversations, catching up, reflecting on life and how fast it goes.

Those “far flung” cities that I went to were always home to close family friends, people who’d known me my whole life.

And that’s when I learned, though we say life is about the journey, the most meaningful ones aren’t unending conveyor belts of novel experience. The best ones lead us home.

Academic mythologist Joseph Campbell spent his career devoted to what he calls The Hero’s Journey. Even if you haven’t heard of it, you already know what it is. It’s The Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of Oz, Moses and the Egyptian exile and much more.

Here’s how it goes: A regular, ordinary person is beckoned to go on a journey, to make a difference in his or her world, and though he refuses at first, eventually he accepts the call to adventure. There are challenges along the way – victories, fun times, and friends too – and sure enough, over time, after battling the ultimate nemesis. Then, he returns home, but this time wiser than before.

For years, I thought the adventure was the point: the journey to Middle Earth, following the Yellow Brick Road, marching out of Egypt and toward the Promised Land…but now, the point looks a lot more like family, coming back to what already was, but a little bit wiser and a lot more grateful.

Israel is a gift and an adventure, but so is being able to be with the people who’ve loved us every step of the way. There’s no doubt that a meaningful life requires us to step away and outside our comfort zone, and when ultimately, it brings us back to our deepest roots – our lineage and heritage, our people, our family – there’s no greater feeling.

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A Unifying Factor on 9/11/2017

911 lights

A few days after the 9/11 attacks, my neighbors’ porches and front steps in Elizabeth, New Jersey, glimmered with memorial candles. Race, age, and social standing didn’t matter in that unique moment in time…we were all Americans.

There’s a great divide in American culture today. At least, that’s what it looks like from my desk in Jerusalem. Today my hope is that wherever we Americans are in the world, we’re putting our differences aside just for a bit; just long enough to recognize that, though we may disagree, we are all members of one of the greatest social experiments in human history. The experiment started over 241 years ago, and we’re still in it, we’re still in the trial phase…and all in all, it’s a privilege to be a part of.

Never before did people from all four corners of the earth gather in one place.

Never before did communities have to live side-by-side, finding the balance between integration and preservation.

Never before was ‘freedom and justice for all’ the fundamental principle of a nation.

It’s not easy. It never was easy. It’ll probably continue to be anything but easy for a long time.

We’re not perfect. We’re far from it.  Yet over time, we learn.

During times when the streets are full of fire and fighting, and it looks like chaos is the only constant, we forget that we are still in an experiment. We are still a part of something that was never done before, and isn’t being done anywhere else. We’re in an arena that few others were willing to enter, let alone build, and like Theodore Roosevelt said, when the man in the arena “strives valiantly,” he also “errs” and “comes short again and again.” Progress isn’t simple. Progress isn’t low stakes. Progress isn’t created by perfect beings. It’s attempted by human beings, like you and me.

So whatever side you’re on, whatever you stand for, whoever you support, just remember, we are in this together. Remember that we all come from people who didn’t believe fate was out of their hands; we all come from people – whether they started out in Europe, Asia, South America, Australia or Africa – who believed the future could be better.

Thank you to all the service men and women, their families, and all individuals who stepped up to protect their nation on September 11th, 2001 and continue to do so every day. For those we lost, you are still greatly missed. 

 

 

This Elul, I’m Not Trying to be a Better Person

Every year at this time of year, I brace myself for a new trek down the road of Teshuva. It’s a time to take stock of where I excelled, faltered and plateaued, and challenge myself to do better.

Truth is, as a Millennial, that’s the message I’ve been raised with my whole life, at every time of year:

If you will it, it is no dream.

Keep moving forward. 

Never, never, never give up. 

Don’t be afraid to be great. 

My generation has been trained to think that we are the heroes of our own stories. We can accomplish whatever we put our minds to: push boundaries, lead innovation, change the world.

But what happens when we don’t live up to those heroic expectations?

I know these phrases are meant to motivate, but now, I find them somewhat misguiding. It’s important to believe in ourselves, and to deeply feel that we have something important to achieve, but what I’ve found on my own journey is that sometimes, in the process of becoming a “better person,” I’ve also become intent on proving my worth. In an effort to show that I had something special to offer, I forgot the point.

In Tehillim 16, King David says, “the sorrows of those who hurry after another multiply.” Often it’s connoted that “another” refers to another god, but Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch purposely leaves “god” out of his interpretation. Today, we have Another of a different kind: an insistent emphasis on achievement.

In 2017, we can be anything we want. Doctors. Entrepreneurs. Creators. Global citizens. Or all of the above if we can figure it out. We have great expectations of ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities. But what happens though when someone doesn’t fit the mold of the ambitious go-getter? What happens when, in our attempt to become better, we lose sight of our true purpose: to be genuine stewards of the gifts G-d gives us. Sometimes, His plans for us aren’t epic. Sometimes, the arenas and challenges wouldn’t make a viral Instagram story or Times of Israel blog post. Sometimes, the greatest glory is considered unextraordinary compared to the expectations of 21st Century life.

Which is why, this year, instead of focusing on being a better person, I’m focusing on being a more grateful person, not just in sentiment, but in practice.

Instead of focusing on who I can be, I’d like to focus on who I already am, and build that person up.

Instead of being so intent on willing dreams into reality, moving forward, and never, never, never giving up, I’d like to bring back some real appreciation for what already is.

Because when I focus on the gracious gifts G-d gives me rather than the gifts I can give Him, I have more to genuinely offer in the long run.

And I think that’s really the point.

 

Proving Our Worth: Be Rudy, Not Korach

Our culture lauds the crazy ones, the misfits, those who stare down social norms and rise above their limitations. Nowadays, you don’t have to be born into a certain kind of family or social class to rise to the top. This is a revolutionary and freeing facet of our reality. A revolutionary and freeing facet of our reality is, if each you can prove your brains, bronze, talent, and tenacity then there’s nothing and no one that can hold you back.

But like all innovation, there are good parts and ugly parts, and if there is any Parsha that demonstrates the ugly side of the proactive destiny-shaper, it’s Parshat Korach.

Korach wasn’t underprivileged, but he believed he could be so much more than society let him be. He felt if he and his followers would just prove themselves, it would even out a nepotistic playing field. Yet his attempt ends in tragedy, fear, and despair.

When you read his words, he’s not saying something that we don’t all believe:

All of the community, all of them are holy (Bamidbar 16:2).

In the 21st Century, it’s hard to wrap our heads around how someone who seemed to champion ambition and upward mobility could be the wrong one. Where is the balance? Where is the line between striving to give our best and going too far?

I found an excellent model for this in the movie, Rudy.

Rudy is based on the true story of Daniel “Rudy” Ruetigger, who makes his way from a blue collar Illinois family to Indiana’s University of Notre Dame football team. He isn’t athletically or academically gifted. By all measurements, he’s very ordinary, aside from his extraordinary will and desire to make his dream come true.

And he does. Step by step, he makes it to Indiana, then to Notre Dame, then to the football team’s practice team, then to the team itself. Nothing breaks his stride. He gets close to being played during a game, but when it looks like that will never be a reality, Rudy is ready to quit…and that’s when his mentor steps in and gives him another perspective:

 

Spoiler – Rudy doesn’t quit. He makes the dress list and gets to run out on the field once. He gets as far as a “five foot nothing, a hundred and nothing” college kid is going to get…and he’s happy with that. He caps his need to prove his worth to others, and instead, starts focusing on proving his worth to himself.

And that’s something I think that we – as we’re bombarded with messages that push to be “greater” – can really use. Tune in to your ambition and pay attention to what is driving it. Are you trying to prove someone or something wrong? What unique talents and dispositions do you have, what do you bring to the table in the here and now, with who you are right now? Instead of trying to build ourselves into what the world deems as valuable, let’s focus on being valuable with what we inherently have, let it take us to places we may never have even dreamed of, and let that bring us joy.

Shabbat shalom!

 

Wandering Back to Jerusalem

My lineage has “Wandering Jew” written all over it. Like many Americans Jews, I’m a hybrid of several ethnicities:  Russian, Hungarian, Moroccan – and Israeli. Poverty and persecution brought my ancestors  to the promising shores of the United States at various times in the 20th century, forcing their family to separate and split for years at a time, and in some cases, forever.

It took three generations of arduous integration, sacrifice, and hard work to build the upper-middle class, suburban existence that I was born into: a life of immersive Jewish education and community at day schools, camps, synagogues, Shabbat afternoon play dates with Shabbat-observant friends, and holidays with beloved family. Three generations to build a unified family unit that puts aside the stresses of everyday life every Friday at sunset and set up huts, seder plates, and all-night learning every year in place of board meetings, office retreats, and the season finale of Survivor. It took decades to create the familial harmony, normalcy, and cohesion that I was blessed to be born into.

Why would I leave that?

Because, I believe with full faith that Israel is where the wandering ends. My roots are in Jerusalem. My great-grandmother was born here. My great-great grandmother was born here. And so it goes further back, on and on and on.

Every generation has to do something to fortify the foundation that supports and upholds our people. Oftentimes, it involves wandering to a new place or plane with which we are are unfamiliar. It seems to me that with wandering, uprooting, and re-rooting comes continuity, longevity and legacy.

How blessed I am to wander back to Jerusalem.

Privilege on Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut

Today was my first Yom HaZikaron in Israel and tomorrow will be my first Yom Ha’atzmaut. How do I feel?

A small exchange with a falafel shop attendant sums it up well.

I’d just finished with some banking business on King George Street. It was the middle of the day – my bank closes at 2pm on Sundays – so on my way back to work, I scouted the local restaurants for lunch-on-the-go.

Falafel never fails in that arena. As per usual, I asked for my order in Hebrew, and as per usual, the man behind the counter answered me in English. I kept on communicating in Hebrew, as incorrect as it might have been and tends to be.

Eventually, he caught on and smiled, thanking me for making the effort to speak the language of the land.

“I’m an olah chadasha,” I explained, “it’s important that I speak Hebrew as much as I can.”

His smile widened and he nodded with a look of pride that reminded me of my parents.. “Wow,” he remarked, “wow, that’s wonderful. You made aliyah – bless you, G-d bless you.”

I thanked and blessed him in return.

In those few minutes he made me feel like a hero; someone who’d done something superhumanly outstanding. But let’s be real – I’m a pretty typical new American immigrant. I’ve had my doubts and difficulties related to aliyah.  Yet, throughout this new beginning, through the peaks and dips, the joy and loneliness – I feel a deep  sense of privilege.

It’s my privilege to have the opportunity to build a life here.

It’s my privilege to travel the  1.5 hour bus rides from my basement apartment on a yishuv to work in Jerusalem.

It’s my privilege to break my teeth over Hebrew, to fall asleep to Israeli radio and wake up to it in the morning, noticing it stick slowly, slowly, more and more.

It’s my privilege to struggle with the uncertainties, feel awkward in the cultural differences…to feel rooted in a purpose and process so much bigger than myself.

It’s my privilege to be an active participant in yishuv Eretz Yisrael. I understand it’s not something every Jew is in a position to do. Each of us has our own destiny – I believe in that more than I believe in aliyah.

I’m just so grateful that mine led me here.

 

Your Main Educator

your main educator - piaseczner

A lot of  people walk around thinking that they’re owed something because their education wasn’t as good as it could have been.

  • It was my school’s job to make sure I knew how to speak Hebrew
  • It was my parents’ job to push me harder
  • It was my parents’ job to push me less
  • It was my Jewish college or Hillel’s job to create a more [fill in the blank] environment

Every educator – whether it’s a parent, teacher, counselor, clergy member – has a responsibility to make their domain of education the best it can be; to foster each and every individual’s growth. And you know what, maybe you’re right. Maybe they messed up.

But now that you’re old enough to care about your growth, advancement, and quality of life (and let’s be frank, you were probably old enough 10 years ago), they can’t care anymore than you do. They can’t make any more of a difference in your life than you’re willing to make in your own.

Decide who has the greatest impact on your life – other people or yourself – and own it.

Because only once we’re willing to own our stories can we really learn from others.

My Great-Grandfather’s Grave

Hearing about the recent desecration of headstones at Jewish cemeteries across the US hit a really personal nerve for me. Exploring and collecting the life stories of my ancestors is important to me, maybe more so than the average Millennial.  Look, there were times when I asked myself why I care so much about people who I never knew. I didn’t always care. As a teenager, visiting my ancestor’s graves was a nice ideal – an auspicious thing to do before the High Holidays – but not worth time away from my burgeoning present and future. As I think back today though, on my great-grandfather’s yartzheit, I feel that it is my duty and responsibility to ask my fellow Jews, both in the Diaspora and in Israel, to learn more about who they come from and to go visit their gravesites.

 

Amram gravestone

My great-grandfather’s gravestone, the National Capitol Hebrew Cemetery, Washington DC

 

It was the beginning of the next chapter of my life. After of a year of working and saving, I was finally beginning college. My family wasn’t spared from the negative effects of the Recession, so instead of enrolling in university right after my gap year in Israel,  I took a detour in the name of fiscal responsibility.

Another detour that I wasn’t thrilled about was the one to the National Capitol Hebrew Cemetery at the border of where D.C. and Maryland meet. My Bubbie and I were in the middle of a five day road trip from her condo in Florida back up to her house in Upstate New York. The deal was this: I’d help her pack up and drive her pristinely kept 1995 Nissan Maxima back Upstate, and at the end of our journey, the car was mine for keeps. With my college career starting along the winding, expansive roads of Rockland County, New York, this was a definitely deal worth taking.  Beginning my 20’s with a bank account full of cash, next-to-no-tuition (thank you, Rockland Community College), and a pair of wheels? Yes, please.

I had begrudgingly agreed to visit her father’s grave on our way up Route 95. Begrudgingly because I had a life to start in New York: college most days and evenings, and a part-time job at a New Jersey Jewish day school twice a week. Taking a pit stop in our fine country’s capitol meant missing the first days of both. My 20-year old mind had no patience for the past when the future I so anxiously awaited was nearly in my reach.

Still, I understood that I owed my grandmother the respect of paying respects, especially since she was giving me her car afterward. She’d mentioned that it had been at least 25 years since see last visited her father’s grave. Twenty-five years…nearly half of the amount of time since his passing in 1963. During that trip, she was determined to document his memory for generations to come, bringing along her camera. Accidentally, she left the camera in the rental car. She was crushed.

Amram Armand Levy

My great-grandfather, Armand Amram Levy, passed away when Bubbie was 16. They’d been living a simple yet idyllic life in Silver Spring, Maryland, enjoying a Jewish-ish suburban life in a two-bedroom apartment. When he suddenly collapsed from a heart attack, life as they knew it changed. My great-grandmother, Libby, packed up my Bubbie and her younger sister, and resettled near her parents in an even smaller two-bedroom apartment, in Albany, New York. Life left her – and her young family – with a gaping hole. My Bubbie described to me how, after her father died, she felt like an orphan, floating through life on her own. Without the resources or support system to help her, visiting his grave wasn’t even an option: her mother worked full-time, they didn’t own a car, the price of bus fare was too vital for their everyday needs. She could only dream of confiding in him, being close to the place that still kept his memory in this world. For many years, it was just a dream; a longed-for moment to anticipate for another time, another day.

When we finally spotted his gravestone, the dream became reality.

Suddenly, the lively, funny lady I knew so well was a girl, crying, “Daddy, Daddy. I miss you.” She rested her head on my shoulder, her warm tears falling onto my hair. Suddenly, the hard-nosed, laser-focused college student was softened and affected. I too began to cry, and felt something I’d never felt before.

It’s hard to put those feelings into words, but the first one that comes to mind is ‘timelessness’. Though I had two feet in this world and in the year 2010, I was also highly aware of my connection to a line of life that started long before me and will please G-d exist long after. There we were, great-grandfather, grandmother, and grandchild, all existing in the same moment. Together. In that moment, I knew deeply in my core, and without a doubt, that I’m not alone in this life, and that my part in it matters…my life story is eternally bound to those who came before me. With this eternal binding and embrace also comes great onus and responsibility: to continue the story and legacy vested within every generation, in my generation.

I got to school and work a day late. It didn’t change my life. Visiting my great-grandfather’s grave did. It’s a moment that will stay with me forever, and still serves as a guide and grace when I feel life is too big for me to deal with alone. If you know where your ancestors are buried, go visit them. Make a statement to those who want to erase our loved ones’ memories on this earth, and make it known, that though they might bring down their gravestones, they won’t bring down our loved ones’ legacies. Show the generations past, present, and future that you -and they- are a part of an eternal embrace, an epic story that is still unfolding. Have your own timeless moment for yourself, for your family, and for our future.

Just this week, my uncle, Bubbie, and cousins mounted plaques in memory of my great-grandfather and great-grandmother in our shul there, Congregation Beth Abraham Jacob. May their memories be a blessing and inspiration for years to come.

 

 

 

A Year After My Final Mega Event

This is my first year following the Nefesh B’Nefesh Mega event from the other side. Yup, after attending the annual conference for three consecutive years, here I am, observing as an Israeli citizen.

Last year’s Mega in Midtown Manhattan was what sealed the deal for me, and my guess is that at least a  few of the 1,500 aliyah-minded folks who attended Sunday’s gathering this year also left feeling encouraged.  For me, there were a two things that the event  did really well:

  1. It got a lot of us aliyah-minded people under one roof, and gave the decision-making process a unifying, celebratory vibe. There’s no greater reassurance than knowing that you’re not on this journey alone.
  2. The NBN staff doesn’t sugar-coat the process. As someone who made aliyah as a single young professional, I can only speak from that perspective: the primary challenges I’ve faced as an olah chadasha (finding a job, finding community, language-related realities) were addressed at various panels and sessions.

Of course, there’s only so much that can be crammed into a one-day event. I didn’t get all the answers I was looking for, and there were certainly things that that were only going to make sense after the fact. Every individual experience is unique. When you make a big change like aliyah, there are certain things you’ll only learn along the way. Though I’m still pretty new myself, looking back to a year ago when I finally decided that it was time to book my flight, there was a particular aspect of the process that understood, but not in full: with growing pains come growing gains.

Aliyah comes with a little identity loss. At times, you’re so focused on setting down the basics, you might wonder hey, who am I?! I think olim from North American countries are more prone to this because we left environments that allowed and encouraged us to thrive professionally, socially, personally, and religiously. We leave all that we’re familiar with – our community centers, synagogues, neighbors, Target – and then have to find new community centers, new synagogues, new neighbors, no Target. Suddenly, the language that wasn’t important enough for (many of) us to be fluent in during all those years of day school and summer camp becomes really important. Oh, and if you’re coming single from New York City like I did, just know that socializing isn’t the same as it was in the Alter Heim. Community is much less focused on synagogue events and ice-breakers. It’s not non-existent, just less prominent, so if you’re a person who loves close-knit community like I do, expect to adapt to the way things are here…or to create what you wish to see.

That’s the wonderful thing about Israel. It’s open to your ideas. Open to growth. So if there is a change you want to see, go for it.

Growth isn’t comfortable. Sometimes it’s clumsy and awkward, but I wouldn’t trade in the growth I’ve experienced so far for the familiarity and comfort of the life I left behind. Because when I’m in growth mode, I’m happy. Truly happy. The term Menuchat HaNefesh, tranquility of soul, is what comes to mind…because growing pains are part of the the mental and emotional shift that occurs when a Diaspora Jew also becomes an Israeli Jew. With every challenge, I’ve gained so much more in the ways of confidence, ingenuity, and self-awareness. I had it all in New York, but I can’t say I had those qualities to the same degree. And I wouldn’t trade those in, not even for Target.

If you’re considering Aliyah as a young professional and want to chat, be in touch. 

First, Bet on Yourself

pablo.png

We’re all still students, or at least, we should be. Even though some of us may have our academic days behind us, the School of Life never stops teaching.

That’s why I flip through Chovat HaTalmidim at least once a year.

You see, the Piaseczner was no softy. He wasn’t soft on teachers and he wasn’t soft on students. When it came to owning education, the onus was never on the other party. Sure, your parents and teachers could have been more encouraging. Sure, your children and students could have taken more initiative. In his book, what other people believe about you doesn’t matter. What matters is what you believe about yourself.

Allow me to serve as a test case.

I’m up to Week 4 of my job hunt. Overall, it’s been encouraging, thank G-d. Still – and I think this is true for most job seekers – doubts creep in. Is my limited Hebrew stifling my potential? How long will this take? How much more of my savings will I have to use?

Then, at the beginning of this week while I was taking my usual morning stroll around the yeshuv, my proverbial heels dug in: I want to make my life here? I want to give it my absolute best shot? No one’s going to bet on me more than I’m willing to bet on myself. It’s time to start living that way.

Not just feeling that way, not just thinking that way, but really living it with every ounce of strength and intention.

As the Piaseczner alludes, as long as we think someone else is deeming us reliable, dependable, or worthy, we’re not achieving what we’re capable of.

You want to be a writer? Write. Don’t wait to be noticed.

You want to speak Hebrew? Start speaking. And watch more Shtisel.

You want steady, stable, loving relationships? Be steady. Be stable. Be loving.

Others will bet on you once they see you’re already betting on yourself.