Being a 20-percenter

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A few years ago, I came across a pre-Passover Charlie Harary video. In it, he shared that of the thousands of Jews living in Egypt at the time of the exodus, only 20% decided to seize the opportunity to walk out of slavery and into freedom.

Really? Only 20%?

I mean, when your reality is one of back-breaking physical labor, humiliation, and absolutely no time to focus on individual and communal well-being…why stick around?Why did 80% of Jewry at that time say, no I’m not up for freedom. I’m staying here.

I never fully understood Charlie’s answer until I read Parashat Beshalach last Shabbat, as a new Israeli immigrant.

As Charlie says. “Freedom isn’t a right, it’s a responsibility. It’s not a privilege, it’s a purpose. It’s not a gift, it’s a choice. You don’t get freedom. You earn it.”

Why did I make aliyah? Because I want a deeply immersive Jewish life. I see this incredible, unique opportunity – to be able to practice Judaism in its totality in the Jewish Land – to fulfill something that was only a dream for generations. At a certain point, I couldn’t imagine not being involved in this chapter of Jewish history.

Flash forward seven months post-Aliyah flight. The dream is no longer a dream. The realities of making a life in Israel – a life with employment, meaningful relationships, and sense of purpose – involve way more than walking the land, and marveling over Shabbat-conscious messages on city buses. Actually, it takes a lot of every day, every moment effort to turn the life you hope for into the life you are living.

Having a meaningful life here isn’t a right, it’s a responsibility.

It’s not just a privilege. It’s a purpose.

It’s not just a gift. It’s a choice. A choice that needs to be made every single day.

At least, that’s how it feels when you are at the banks of the sea, with your old life not far behind you, and the new one ahead is a nebulous haze of uncertainty.

So, I understand why only 20% chose freedom. Freedom comes with a lot of unknowns… and the known, whether you like it or not, has a soothing familiarity to it.

I understand why those who chose freedom were complaining not long after, yearning for the pots of meat and plentiful bread they left behind. Freedom is downright scary, even when you know it was the best possible choice.

So, 20-percenters, what to do?

Take it one day at a time. Own your choices. Give them time to blossom. Nurture them. Nurture yourself. Know that though you’ve let go of many comforts, you’ll never have to wonder ‘what if.’

What if I tried to make it to the Promised Land?

What if I allowed myself to step outside my comfort zone?

What if I did, instead of dreamed?

Those aren’t questions you’ll have to ask yourself. See the solace in that.

You are the 20 percent.  That’s pretty amazing.

The Stuff That Life is Made Of

The first commandant [that the Jewish people] were given in Egypt…was to mark time. This is because the slave lacks time-awareness…no matter how hard he may try to be productive in time, he will not reap the harvest of his work…He lacks the great excitement of opportunities knocking at the door, of challenges summoning him to action, of tense expectations, and fears of failure. 

…to live in time and feel its rhythm, one must also move from the memory of the past to the unreality of the future. One must go from things and events that were and no longer, toward that which will be real someday, even though it is not real yet – from reminiscing to anticipating. To live in time means to be committed to a great past and to an unborn future. (R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, “Festival of Freedom, pp. 37-42).

Free time. In “about us” blurbs, dating profiles, and Shabbat meal icebreaker, we’re expected to have answer for how we use this unstructured, empty space between periods of being busy. Now, over time, mot of us realize it’s admirable to say things like “well, if I had free time then I’d…” or similar expressions of absolute occupation. After all, no one with a life has free time. Am I right? Anyone who’s a someone has waaay too much going on to think about how they’d spend their time in an ideal world.

And it’s in that assumption that many people lose their lives. Not to sickness, to an accident, not to an unlucky twist of fate, but from day after day after day of not thinking about what we’re actually here for.

In Parashat Bo, God gives the Jewish people the ultimate gift – Freedom – but before He let’s His people go, He gives them a container for this prized possession: Rosh Chodesh. You see, they’re not only losing the slave labor and living conditions…they’re also losing the infrastructure that stood in the place of their free will. Free will can be measured in several ways, and perhaps the most common one is through time. How is our time spent? What do we will it with? How seriously do we take it?

Hachodesh Hazeh yehiyeh lachem. This commandment is for us, to give us, as R. Soloveitchik calls it, time-awareness.

Being accountable for our time, every day, is scary. Quite petrifying, actually. So petrifying that we’ll do just about anything else to bar us from thinking too deeply about if we need to make any changes, and how challenging it will be. It’s much easier to accept the certainty of the past, than to work toward an ideal but uncertain future.

Yet, when we step into the moment and all its uncertainty, we put ourselves in a position to reap, create, and enjoy a future that is beyond what we can even dream of. The real test of time is looking at our present and all it’s crevices of “free time” and saying, “I can use this time 100% well.” It means knowing what matters most to us, and cutting out the enslaving junk that stands in its way. It might just look like 20 minutes here and 10 minutes there at the outset, yet in reality it’s much more than that…time is “the stuff that life is made of.” (Thank you Ben Franklin!).

Shabbat shalom!

Bringing Miracles About From Within

Oftentimes, we think of miracles as occurrences that happen outside ourselves. They’re that extra push, shove, umph that enables us to do the seemingly impossible.

Stop. This is where the Chanukah lights come in.

There’s a problem, and that is the mistaken connection of ‘miracle’ and ‘impossible.’

The Hasidic sect of Amshinov, as told so powerfully by Rabbi Chaim Eisenstein, breaks this misnomer:

“The miracle of chanukah came about because of the desire, the aspiration for everything that the menorah represents…holiness…כי נר ה נשמת אדם [for G-d’s candle is man’s soul]..that was why the miracle happened…only if a person  wants it does it really happen.”

The Maccabees won because because their hearts wanted – more than anything else – to preserve and protect Torah learning and living. They were willing to risk it all.That’s why the miracles were possible.

Have you ever thought about how powerful your will is? How much energy, power, and ability you have to change your reality? Think about a time you really wanted something – something bigger than yourself – and you gave your all, no holds barred.

That is where miracles are born.

That is where you’ll find that what seems impossible, isn’t…it just exists on a plane you weren’t aware of until you took the chance and looked for it.

 

 

 

Olah Chadasha on the Lower East Side

 

This past week, I took a much dreamed about trip to the Tenement Museum in Lower East Side of Manhattan. I’d gone into the city to report for jury duty (something I consider an exciting novelty now that I call Israel home), but it turns out, once you move out of New York county, NY civil court doesn’t want you. I may be one of the few Americans left who relish in the opportunity to do one’s civil duty for $40 a day without travel reimbursements, but hey, that’s what happens when you become an expat…you start to miss the things that used to seem like a nuisance.

Anyhow, I had left my whole day open for jury duty, and at 10 am, I was left with an entirely open day on a blustery December morning. What to do?

Go to that museum I’ve been wanting to visit since college, of course. Every weekend, on my way from New Jersey back to a week of school at Queens College, I noticed something called the Tenement Museum. It was always a place I passed by, not one that I made an effort to stop at. Google Maps said it was a 20 minute walk away, I said “hey, what a great day to see where Jewish immigrants lived at the turn of the 19th century” and that was that.

My timing was really quite excellent. I got there just in time for a tour of Shop Life. Upon registration, I answered the clerk’s question with half-minded automaticity: My name is Eliana Sohn…It’s spelled S-O-H-N…I am not a student.

The next question, though seemingly simply, took me by surprise: Where are you from, Ms. Sohn?

I hesitated, and I’m sure he saw it on my face. Where am I from? Well, I lived in the US the past 26 years of my life, and this man would never think I’m anything other than American given my hybrid New York-Boston accent…but I made aliyah. I’m Israeli now too, a new identity that I thank G-d for wholeheartedly every day. But what will the clerk think of me when I say I’m from Israel…it’s not really his business where I call home.

“I’m from New York,” I finally responded.

New York? That’s what I said? Really?

Did I not just finalize to the New York County court that I was no longer a New Yorker? At least if I said Jersey I’d have been telling some sort of truth. Forget New York. Forget New Jersey. Why was I afraid to say that I’m now from Israel, an Israeli?

When we’re given a name, or we give a name to ourselves, that name is meant to express the essence of who we are or hope to be over the course of a lifetime. For most of us, we don’t choose or change our first name, as Jacob’s was changed in Parashat VayishlachStill many people do change their name or title to signify a deeply cherished choice and commitment they’ve made.  For some, it’s choosing to go by their Hebrew name, for others, it’s taking on a new last name after marriage. Some acquire a title related to a calling or specialty: Doctor, Professor, Rabbi (to name a few).

After Jacob struggles with a messenger/angel (אִישׁ֙) on his way to meet his long estranged brother Esau, he gains a new name:

   וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַֽעֲקֹב֙ יֵֽאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל

And [the angel] said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have commanding power with [an angel of] God and with men, and you have prevailed.

The meaning seems pretty straightforward. Jacob had a very difficult life, but even so, he never lost sight of his faith and core values. No matter what, he held tight to his purpose and mission, without making demands or looking for loopholes.

Rashi says it best:

.לא יאמר עוד שהברכות באו לך בעקבה וברמיה כי אם בשררה ובגלוי פנים

It shall no longer be said that the blessings came to you through trickery (עָקְבָה) and deceit, but with nobility (שררה) and openness.

From the time of his birth, Jacob has gotten his blessings by tricking or being tricked. He receives the first born son’s blessing from Isaac by pretending to be Esau. He only gets to marry his intended wife, Rachel, after first (unknowingly) marrying Leah. Anything that looked like a blessing was never acquired simply or directly.

And perhaps this is why, when he is about to face Esau for the first time since he traded his lentil stew for the first born blessing, he is given a new name related to the out-in-the-open, nowhere-to-hide encounter he’s about to have.

I get Jacob. Many times, I try to go around a problem…to observe it from all sides, to execute a choice with the least potential for friction. But there’s something we lose when we examine life on tiptoe, and that is the ability to express ourselves and our values in an nobly open way. We think we’re only showing the parts of ourselves that we want to be seen, but in reality, we’re only estranging ourselves from ourselves. We forget to be who we are at face value, walking into the world insecure, unsure, and skeptical.

When the tour began, the tour guide asked each participant to say where they’re from. This time, I didn’t hesitate to share that I am a citizen of a people and country which is tasked with living up to its name; in being  ישר, straightforward and honest in how we receive and allocate our blessings. This quality has always been my birthright, because a Jew, no matter where he or she lives, must work to embody this trait. Yet as a citizen of the Jewish State, my responsibility has been amped up. Likely, I’ll be held up against judgements and portrayals that are uncomfortable to confront, sometimes downright spiteful. Yet the task is also a privilege, one that my ancestors prayed for from their shtiblach in Russia, Jerusalem, Morocco, and America…and I feel nothing less than honored to be the one to represent their dream and the legacy of the name we all share: ישראל.

The Mount Moriah of Aliyah

As many of my friends in Israel know, I am missing the last few weeks of my Ulpan program, Ulpan Etzion, that I’ve been enrolled in since my aliyah last July. Goodbyes, in general, aren’t easy, but this one is particularly hard.

As our session comes to an end, I can’t help but feel that Jacob’s words from this week’s parasha, say what I’ve felt over the last five months: And Jacob awakened from his sleep, and he said, “Indeed, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know [it].”

For years, I felt alone in my dream of making aliyah. Sure, people spoke about it in a wistful, hopeful manner, but few considered their dream a pressing priority. I found a couple other kindred spirits, and together, we dreamed and planned quietly, supporting each other in our deeply cherished goal. It wasn’t until I made the decision to go myself, that I realized how many others were making the same consideration, quietly.

Initially, I chose Ulpan Etzion because a friend of mine who’d made aliyah the summer before recommended it. She told me about the friends she made, how they supported one another, how the teachers and the staff went above and beyond to help new olim begin their aliyah with community and guidance. Honestly, at first, I thought of it as a convenient place of lodging. Maybe I would like it, maybe I wouldn’t. Bottom line, they gave me a bed, two meals a day, and an address for my Nefesh B’Nefesh application. That’s all I thought I needed at that point.

Well, there’s one other thing that is vital for a new olahand Ulpan Etzion provided it really well: a sense of belonging. Thing is,  I didn’t see it coming. Until aliyah, I thought I’d find belonging by fitting myself into a community of homogeneous core goals and values. Ulpan Etzion is a pretty heterogeneous place. Students come from all over the world, with varying levels of religious affiliation and reasons for making aliyah. We have a motley gathering of cultures, languages, and views on who gets to be first on the lunch line, and yes, that can cause friction and misunderstanding. Even so, most of us came together to learn more, connect, and celebrate the huge commonality we all share: setting down roots in Eretz Yisrael.

In its own way Ulpan Etzion is the Mount Moriah of my aliyah journey. It was the first stop on my journey from dream to reality. Just as Jacob had a place of respite  on his way to fulfilling his ultimate goal: to begin his own family and return in peace to his father’s house, to Eretz Yisrael, so have I begun to chart my own journey with my incredible peers. Sometimes, like Jacob, we wake up frightened and afraid – the natural outcome of applying a dream to reality. And though I can’t speak on behalf of all new olim, I wholeheartedly can say the same, as Jacob did: “How awesome is this place. This is none other than the house of God.”

This is the place where I gained a new privilege and identity – that of an olah and resident of the State of Israel.

This is the place where European, Russian, and South American Jews (among others) became more than impersonal data in Pew reports and  news articles, but friends and family.

This is the place where I learned that even though aliyah comes with difficulties, it also comes with something I never had in the US: a sense of enough and acceptance of life’s perplexing imperfect goodness.

In Israel, life can be tough, but you never have to tough it out alone.The compassion, kindness, and camraderie I found in Ulpan Etzion, as well in the deep love of Am Yirsrael and Eretz Yisrael, has introduced me to a new side of myself, or really, awakened a confidence, tenacity, and sense of wholeness.

Uncertainty is a far more exciting adventure when you’re in it with others.

 

 

 

Erev Yom Kippur 5777

Sometimes, our destiny seems like a heavy load to bear.

G-d chooses us for a task – a unique task – and sometimes, that task doesn’t align with who we think we are:

Perhaps what looks like a sign is only my imagination.

I’m not so important.

G-d will find someone else to do this task.

I’m going to do what think is right.

We’re brazen.

We’re stubborn.

We build walls around our hearts and souls, drowning out the small, still voice.

Yes, it might only be our imagination. Yes, perhaps we’re not so important and someone else will pick up and do the tasks we were able to. Perhaps, with all our hearts, we think we know what’s right; we know what is best for ourselves and our people.

Jonah kept running from G-d. He fervently believed that enabling Nineveh to repair and return – as individuals and as a nation – would make life as he knew it unlivable. He ran and ran, thinking that surely, someone else could do this task. Someone else could do the work of G-d.

But G-d didn’t choose someone else. He chose Jonah. And Jonah was the man for the job.

Tonight, on Yom Kippur, we converse with G-d. We confess our wrongdoings. The times we pushed off responsibility. The times we thought, the world will be fine without my efforts; I’m not the one for the job.  And tonight, we also declare that no matter what we do, G-d remains the same: merciful, gracious, slow to anger. We can flee from one end of the world to the next, but eventually G-d “catches” us. The task might have been on hold, but it will continue.

Even if it takes generations.

Think about where and who you come from. The choices that were made that lead to your existence and that have shaped your values. As you make your choices in 5777, remember, you are important. Your choices matter. Your choices will shape the generations that follow you. Take down the walls. Search your heart and soul.

If you have the strength to keep running, you have the strength to stand still. To accept your destiny. To turn around and take one step in the other direction. Toward your unique task. Your destiny. Your contribution to Am Yisrael.

My Golden Ticket Redeemed


Last year, I wrote about my great-grandfather’s journey from Israel to the US and then back to Israel again. Frankly, the piece felt incomplete. I spoke of R’ Yechiel Zvi’s love and longing for our homeland – how he returned as soon as he was able to – while I was still hoping and dreaming of setting down roots in Eretz Yisrael. 

Thank G-d, a year later, I am spending Rosh HaShana in Israel as an olah chadasha. Words cannot properly describe how privileged and honored I feel. I owe much thanks to my family, whose support keeps me rooted and strong. I also owe much gratitude to my friends, both in the US and Israel, who encouraged me and led by example. 

And thank you to R’Yechiel Zvi, his daughter -my Alta Bubbie – Hinda,  her daughter – my grandmother – Sally, and my incredible parents. Thank you for keeping the deep connection to Zion alive for four generations. It’s my imperative and privilege to nourish this connection in the years to come, b’ezrat Hashem.

Shana tova.

Shabbat Tisha B’Av: A Glimpse into the Future

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From the Shabbat song, Mah Yedidut (“How Pleasant”) 

Only every once in a while, the most somber day of the Jewish year, the 9th of Av, falls out on Shabbat, and when it does, we get a glimpse into what the day will look like during the End of Days.

This year, the 9th of Av is on Shabbat, and though we limit ourselves in some ways (for example, the customary learning of Pirkei Avot  during summer Shabbat afternoons is suspended), the moments before the fast begins at sunset, we feast.

Under normal circumstances, the meal before Tisha B’Av matches the tone of the succeeding day: simple, unembellished, mournful. However, when the Tisha B’Av and Shabbat coincide, we prepare and partake in a festive pre-fast dinner, replacing egg and ash with our delicious Shabbat delicacies (or hummus and salad). Even as we approach the saddest day of the year, we rejoice in Shabbat, and hold onto its inherent peace and pleasantness.

This Tisha B’Av, and this Shabbat, we get two doses of peace and pleasantness: that of Olam Haba and that  of the Final Days, when instead of sitting on the floor in mourning, we will gather round festive tables to eat and sing, and thank G-d for the day that our tears of paint turned to tears of joy, and the holes in our lives were filled once and for all, with happiness, security, and complete clarity.

 

Memorial Day Every Day

Every day for one and a half years, I passed a cemetery on my way to class.

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That’s a hook right there, wouldn’t you say? A great way to describe the hoards of community college students shuffling along from class to class – ear buds in, zoned out, sometimes with a joint of a smoking leaf of some kind dangling from their pouted lips.

The thing is, I’m telling the full faith truth. There is a cemetery on the Rockland Community College campus, and each day, my fellow students and I went to and from the back-most parking lot to the academic buildings, we passed by nearly 100 WWII and Korean War veterans; individuals who gave years of their lives in service to our country.

Of course, as one day melds into the next, it’s hard to stop and think about the significance of a veterans’ cemetery on a college campus. As we – students of all ages, ethnicities, backgrounds, and affiliations – endeavored to execute our unique versions of the American dreams, those who fought for our freedom were right there with us every day. Sometimes, I wondered how often students stepped down the smoothly paved concrete path to visit the modest gravestones in the Gary Onderdonk Veterans Memorial Cemetery. In my three semesters there, I went once.

I was the only one there on that bright, sun shiny spring afternoon. The headstones were as simple as can be: small, flat rectangular stones of whitish-grey hues, inscribed with names, dates of birth and of service, and the symbol of the religion of which the veteran belonged to. Small American flags were planted alongside each one, sometimes with a lone violet or daisy. As I passed each one, I wondered what each of their stories were , what their war experiences were like, what comforts and dreams they surrendered so that their  the rest of us wouldn’t have to. I reflected on my own dreams: to graduate college, to do so without substantial debt, to be self-sufficient, have time for friends and family, get married, start a family, and provide the next generation with opportunity to do the same.

Every now and then, we are reminded of how many sacrifices our everyday lives stand on, and how everyday people, even today, give the precious commodities of time with family, mental and physical health, and of course, life itself, for our freedom. Aside from attending the auspicious commemoration ceremonies, barbecues, and sales, I hope we honor their memories every day, by honoring the blessing of liberty with responsibileness  for what we do with the one-time-only gift we call life.

“Freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.” – Viktor Frankl

 

 

Eagerly Awaiting Shabbat

 

Haya hoveh (Kah Echsof)

Kah Ecsof, by Rabbi Aharon of Karlin

 

It is reported that the Brisker Rav, Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik, followed the ruling of the Rambam {that one should anxiously await the arrival of Shabbat, Hilchot Shabbat 30:2].

Each Friday afternoon, after all the preparations were complete and the candles were lit, he would go out onto his balcony dressed in his Shabbat finery, and eagerly await the arrival of Shabbos.

-Rabbi Moshe Bamberger, The Zemiros (Jerusalem: Feldheim Publishers, 2010, p. 96