Follow Your Compass

At one point in my life, I had serious dreams and pseudo business plans for opening my own coffee shop.  There would be pegs on the wall with ceramic mugs, labeled for each of my regulars.  The plan was presented in my senior thesis at NYU, where I brought four cups of coffee – from Starbucks, the retired MudTruck, a local NYC street corner coffee cart, and my senior year dorm room.  Each was used to demonstrate how one cup can inspire vastly different cultures and communities.

I am not joking.  I love coffee, and I love all it represents.

So when a board member took me for a magical visit to the Compass Coffee Roastery a few months ago, I was in caffeinated heaven.  The incredible founders, Michael and Harrison, weaved their way through the space, indulging my questions on how they source new beans, how they make decisions on company growth, how syrups get made, and how many cups they each drink a day.  They are smart and savvy, engaged in the DC community in a creative and inspiring way.

But they weren’t the stars of my visit.  M was.

There he was, unexpected and standing behind Michael and Harrison as they greeted me at the door, looking official and impressive as he guided other employees through the store.  Seeing former students is the joy of my professional life, watching someone you saw blossom throughout college being the fully blown grown-up they had been working so hard to become.  M. graduated from GW a few years ago, a former engagement intern who hustled his way through college with a lot on his plate.  Following a first consulting gig that did nothing for his soul, he found himself in a local Compass for a few months as he killed time between jobs.  He built relationships with the people that worked there and a short-term barista job morphed and evolved into a full-time space he now gets to occupy at the ever-growing company.  M. is a mensch, a sweet soul, the best of the best.

When we met again, just yesterday, M. made the comment that all of the engagement and coffee dates he took on as part of his Hillel engagement intern role were ultimately leading him to his current job at Compass – building relationships, tracking growth, drinking lots of coffee.  It reminded me of my own path, how that coffee shop dream and senior thesis has led me to a job where coffee and conversations and community are at the heart of my work.

What direction might your own personal compass be pointing you in?  And how can you be a part of helping others use their own?

The Layers of our Lives

I was supposed to have coffee with E. today.  Only E.  Then G!d showed up, along with three other unexpected guests.

I’m known by my family to have immense faith in G!d.  I have been through trials in my life and rarely do I feel the holy roller, Lord of the movies visiting me from up above.  But I do see daily reminders that Hashem is all around us, taught to me in social work school as horizontal spirituality.  Many great thinkers have considered this concept, that spirituality is not just a high heavens, shining light type of experience.  It is also in the day-to-day moments of our lives, if we’re only willing to pay attention.

E. was late, even though we had confirmed just an hour before.  I did not have her number and my poor, old, phone doesn’t have the space for Facebook Messenger.  While waiting, V. showed up.  We talked about life and Jerusalem and the man in the White House.  And then she mentioned E.

me: ‘My E.?  You know my E.?’

V: ‘Yes!  I’m learning with her in an hour.’

So V. texts E. and while waiting to hear back, I see a President walk in the door.  No, not DJT but SJT.  Former President at GW, King of all Shmoozers, Nice Jewish Boy out of Brooklyn.  And because he has nowhere to be until 1, he pulls up a chair at the table.

Finally E. arrives, out of breath, pondering a roommate who has just thrown up on her bed.  And we talk – about drinking things other than coffee at 10am, about challenging conversations, about Senator Franken and Alabama and sexual assault.  And then we’re soon joined by Y. because by now, it’s time to learn.  Our fortuitous 5 person coffee date is transitioning to Torah.  Torah learned and initiated by students, for students; this is a Hillel Director’s dream.

Holiness and the layers of our lives are ever present.  But sometimes, we’re too busy on our stated paths to get lost on the paths that we’re presented with – blessedly, unexpectedly, on a daily basis.

What conversation did you miss because you were too busy with another conversation?  What layers of your life are ready, willing, and able to teach you something about holiness?

Coffee with Evan & Myself

tappingI did something crazy yesterday.  I took the day off.

Battling the inner voice in my head & guilt in my heart that I had kids/work/other obligations back home, I boarded the train and had a $3 cup of Dunkin Donuts in silence as the Northeast Corridor passed me by.  But this coffee date wasn’t entirely by myself; I had a date with Evan Hansen, the other 1,008 people that fit in New York’s Music Box Theatre, and on some level – with every college student I have ever encountered in my work who merely wants to be SEEN.  One day later, I’m still thinking.

I’m thinking about the power of music to move the soul, the map I seek (as a mom, as a human being) on how to live our lives (you know, the map that doesn’t actually exist).  I’m thinking of the likes we seek, the windows on my phone screen that take me away from the real windows that frame my life.  I’m thinking of you – that college student that I didn’t give enough time to because I was too distracted, the one that sought validation I wasn’t able to give, the one who felt lost as a freshman but told me everything was great when I knew it wasn’t.

When I see a beautiful piece of art, I want to bottle it up and share it.  I want to give it out so others can drink up that feeling, the one that brought tears to my eyes and powered me all the way back home.  But I don’t have the money to buy a theatre ticket for everyone I’ve ever known.  What I do have are prayers and questions.

I pray that I see you, as you thirst to be seen.  I pray that I hire people that do the same.  I pray you know that none of my phone windows are as important as seeing you on the other side of yours, and I pray I look up and show you that.  I pray that I can use my career for good, just as the writers and actors of Dear Evan Hansen do with this show.  And I pray I stop being so hard on myself, that I remember a day to myself to think through my prayers helps me do better for the world.

What’s the art around you that you thirst to bottle up?  Who can you look up and see a little more clearly today?


The Great Shake & The Snowy After

snowglobespoiler alert: stop reading if you’ll be hanging with GW Hillel this Yom Kippur – remarks below!

Did you have a snow globe when you were growing up?

Ruth Calderon, a prominent thinker in Israel, reminded me this summer of the magic of such an invention. Channel your inner three year old for a moment. You pick up the globe and shake it vigorously, watching before you the energy you’ve generated and the slow magic that comes when the snow settles. This, my friends – THIS. IS. WONDER.

Wonder evolves and comes in many forms as we grow. In thinking back on my college years, I lived as a sophomore at NYU on Water Street – the Vern of NYU, if you will. This was a dark time in my life, the fall of 2001, coinciding with the tragic events a few blocks away at the World Trade Center. Each morning, all of us New Yorkers were lost in a fog, but the world kept turning and we still had to ride the bus to class.

There was a boy with green shoes that I pinned my adoration on. John Mayer played on my Walkman and every so often, that boy with the green shoes got on the same bus that I did. WOW – call it bashert, call it G/d, I stood in awe – how lucky was I, in this traumatized world, to get on the elevator at the exact time to make the exact bus as this boy who made my heart flutter. Wonder, in full effect.

When I get in the car and my new favorite song, ‘Wish I Knew You’ by The Revivalists is playing. When my four year old asks how one reads and I can help her sound out the simplest of words in her library book. When my one year old counts to 10 or says ‘Hey Babe’. When all my other friends complain about jobs they hate, and I can only talk about a job of meaning that I love. This is Wonder.

What, might you ask, do the green shoes and the snow globe and my car radio have to do with Yom Kippur?

For some strange reason, Yom Kippur has been interpreted by many as a sad day – woe is us, without our food and caffeine, stuck in synagogue all day long. But this day is actually known to be one of the happiest on our calendar, a day of AWE – or wonder, if you will. This day is a forced, but blessed, shaking of our own snow globe; we get to put aside the work and the phones and the Netflix queue for a few key moments of peace, snowy peace. What is the goodness inside of my own Jewish snow globe – what are the values, who are the people, what is the blessed work I need to do to be the best me I can be? And then we need to shake and gaze inside – WOW, lucky me, what a life, what a slate that I have the capacity to wipe clean and re-write! What a democracy I live in, with the ability to vote and make my voice heard! What a privilege to work hard through college, to get an education and put it to good use!

This shaking is invaluable… but then comes tomorrow. The slow float downwards, the gaze that happens after the big bold event. In the Torah on Yom Kippur, we read Acharei  – translated as after. Aaron’s sons have flown too close to the sun, so thirsty to get close to G/d that they died in the pursuit. They shook their snow globes too hard. But the parsha and it’s commentary, as evidenced in the name, aren’t about the shake – it’s about the after, the gaze that we pursue when the big moment has passed.

Gazing everyday though presents its own challenges. Just as we brush our teeth or check our Facebook feed before we go to bed, so too must we find our own personal wonder routines. A New York Times article once highlighted the dinner table challenge of Jonathan Safran Foer. Did his children ‘pass the wonder line’ that day, pausing long enough to be amazed at the world? My friend Dina buys lottery tickets, an excuse to dream with her husband. Millions might be nice, but she’s more interested in the dollar she spends that facilitates great conversation about what’s truly important to them. Dinner table chats and lottery ticket purchases – wonder, turned into routine.

I’m here, humbly, on this joyful Yom Kippur day, to remind you of your snow globe. I sincerely hope this day will inspire a really great shake, a vigorous experience of wonder. But what I hope for more is for what happens after – for the routine you can create, the dinner table conversation or the lottery ticket purchase, that will keep you intentional and deliberate on the wonder around you, the blessings in your life that often go unnoticed when our lives are distracted by the TV news and text messages. Wonder leads to gratitude, to compassion, to mitzvot.

May your fast be easy and your snow globes be wondrous.

The Power I Have

In my new role at work, I get more e-mails than I used to.  I get credit card receipts and transfer notices, contracts to sign and parents saying hello with a deep love and concern for their child.  And every so often, I get an added blessing in my inbox, too.

This week’s came from M.  She’s a senior.  I’ve never met her.  Admittedly, I’ve never even heard her name until she wrote to me earlier this week.   She shared she’s been deep in thought after a summer of two lightbulb moments.  The first was a trip to Israel.  The second are the events that transpired in Charlottesville last weekend.  She is seeking Jewish community – so we’re going to get coffee.

Let’s NOT talk about politics, shall we?  Let’s talk about the power we have on the days we feel powerless.

If I was my grandmother, growing up in Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany in the 1930s, would I have felt the same sense of Jewish pride that I do today?  It seems to be there is a very fine line between pride & fear, connection & retreat.  We are living through rocky days, days where I make sure my kids can’t hear the news cycle, days where I’m thinking deeply about the Jewish parents getting ready to drop their children off at the University of Virginia next week.  Do you tell your child to stand proudly as a Jew, even if it brings them into a line of fire?  Or do you tell them to stay a little quieter, and hence, maybe just a little safer?  I cannot fathom that I even write this in 2017 – and yet as a parent so desperate to protect her children, I think these questions are real.

I don’t know much, but I do know this:  What a job I am privileged to have, a job that’s on the receiving end of M.’s email; she is the hero of my story.  I cannot control what comes out of the mouths of those in power, but I can take charge of the power I have.  It is this: to help M express her power to feel proud of her Jewish identity, to create laboratories at GW so M and her peers can play around with the malleable shape of one’s Jewish identity, to help M. write her own torah & exert her own powerful Jewish identity in ways that work for her.

What is your power?  And how can you use it to bring positive change, to be a light where darkness creeps in?


On Waking Up at 5:30

kind coffeeI’ve been having a lot of coffee with Sheryl Sandberg lately. Coffee in the car listening to her featured in the ‘On Being’ podcast, coffee when speaking with my dreaming colleague Emily about hearing Sandberg speak at Sixth & I, coffee as I read Dr. Erica Brown’s reflections on Sandberg’s new book. For those of you who only know her from Facebook / Lean In fame, Sandberg recently penned ‘Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy’ with Adam Grant. While speaking with the On Being host, Sandberg reflected on how she never appreciated the significance of birthdays until losing her husband. Although she used to roll her eyes and bemoan growing older, she now welcomes the opportunity to mark being alive. In her words, ‘we either grow older, or we don’t’.

Yesterday was my birthday.

A year ago on my birthday, one of my dearest friends went into labor. At 5:30am, I was with her older daughter, excited that her baby brother was on the way. At 5:30am this year, I heard my own 3 year old in her bed, singing Happy Birthday to me. These are the holy moments of our lives. This is what Sandberg talks about, the deep gratitude in growing older to catch the joy of our ordinary days.

Something else happened yesterday. GW Hillel shared that after seven years, I’ll be taking over as Executive Director when my friend and mentor, Rabbi Yoni Kaiser-Blueth, heads off to do amazing leadership work with Hillel in South America.

You may think this is a post on Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. And you’re probably (partially) right. As a mom and wife, my first question on this job was about the elusive balance of family and work.  Those questions are plentiful, good ones that demand the intention and presence we should all bring to our lives, not just (happily) weary young parents considering career choice.

But this thought is on Sandberg’s Option B. We all have plans, especially the college students who I have cherished over coffee dates for these seven plus years. We dream of the roles we crave, the idealized notions presented to us on our social media feeds. And then students tell me of the things that ‘get in the way’ – the finances, the horrible internship supervisor, the troubled dynamic at home, the gut feeling that even though one path was laid out, it’s not the one they now must walk upon. When the path changes, the great news is that we get the chance to change too.

My work will now change; the cherished coffee dates with students will partially pivot to coffee dates with alums and parents and community members deeply invested in this mission of providing students the tools they need to live vibrant Jewish lives beyond their college years. But the joy of this work, the gratitude I feel in my life – to have a birthday, to wake up this morning to a new day & chapter, to see students through this most holy time in their lives – this remains.

What are you grateful for today, on this ordinary Friday?  And how can the changes in your own life present an opportunity to grow, instead of a chance to hold on to what you’ve always known to be true?

The Messes Not Worth Cleaning Up

img_2176There are many Jewish roles to play in a home – the maker of kiddush, the lighter of Shabbat candles, the pincher of hamantaschen corners.  And then there’s a role held in my childhood home by my mother, now also held by me: the de-waxer of menorahs.

If you hold this role in your house, you know it’s fraught with decisions – to pre-treat or not, to preemptively buy good candles, to freeze it off or pour hot water instead?  We spend eight days layering light, building upon the miraculous.  When it’s all over, we’re left with what I always find to be a tough spot in the year.  The night still comes early, spring is nowhere in sight, quiet time is over and plugging away re-begins.  Darkness is upon us and the menorah needs cleaning.

But I’m not always sure why?

Yes, I can hear type A friends across the globe insisting a clean-up is paramount to a new year and a new holiday celebration.  Yet when cleaning my own menorah last night, I was struck by the beauty in the mess.  There were colors and cracks, unexpected blending where light had merged with light.  There was a reminder of my daughter being old enough to light her own candles this year, my son wide-eyed as the light had appeared.  This was our first Chanukah in our new home, a reminder of a nest we’re building, twig by twig.

Our culture likes the story of a fresh start – new year, new semester, new classes, new resolutions!  But especially in this new season of uncertainty in our country, the drips of our memory can be powerful and perhaps should not be so quickly erased.  A memory of beauty and hope may help propel us forward.  An unexpected connection from one past experience to another could be the spark of an idea we need to make a vital change.

What’s worth cleaning up in your own world – and what’s worth letting be?

Get In Your Box

boxI’m in love with a gal named K.  We met at CI, and started a refreshing conversation that felt light and joyous and open-ended.  She is confident and poised and asking great questions about being alone, joining community, finding her way.

We grabbed coffee this week and I somehow felt I was the one who got more out of it than she did.  From divorce and parenting to disability and sororities, our conversation meandered through college life.  And then she said, “I never used to GO to Shabbat.”

Go?  Go where?

I’m familiar with this terminology and have been for my entire professional life.  And yet it throws me off every time.

Adena’s Jewish Theory, The Charge of my Work: Every Jew is born, and sitting in the delivery room is a box, the BEST gift you’ll ever be given.  And yet, some never open the box.  Others only open the box a few years later, pulling out unappealing pieces of this multi-faceted gift (read lame Hebrew School classes or boring High Holiday services).  The present sits unopened, untapped.  Millions of dollars of diamonds, none of which ever get to shine in the light.  My job is to help students open their own boxes, examine the contents, find the pieces that feel relevant so they can use the contents of their boxes for the rest of their lives.

In my own box is Shabbat.  It’s not somewhere to GO, it’s a feeling to have.  It’s the end of a busy week, the slow down and checking out of work, the checking in to family and my soul.

In K’s box?  Tzedakah and the gift of Tashlich – the beautiful chance to cleanse yourself and start again.  The blessings of family and generations – recipes passed from Grandma to Mom to K.  The charge to help others, as we were once strangers in a strange land.

What’s in your box?  And if you haven’t opened it lately, how can I help?

It’s You I Want to Talk to.

Walking_by_(4709414878)Another June comes and presents me the opportunity to meet the incoming class of freshmen on campus.  For me, it’s a mix of hope of what can be and empathy for the looks I see from those who aren’t quite sure how this freshman year thing will pan out.  (I was you.  I get it.)  Working on a college campus is perhaps the oddest combination of predictability and unpredictability.  Everything is the same each year and nothing is the same.

Yoni and I sit beside each other at Open Houses and BBQs and Org Fairs, watching the world go by.  We love the enthusiasm and funny conversations that often greet us.  The predictable is packaged in parents wanting to know about High Holidays, in students wanting to make sure they can grab Shabbat dinner.  A mom wanted me to know this year how handsome her son was.  Another complained how uncommunicative her son was, merely 5 minutes after he had held the most eloquent conversation with me.  These families are blessings, excited to jump in and be a part of building something great.

But then there is the mom or dad or student who throws a bit of side eye.  They hurry past, worried we may bite, with their bouncing curls, their New York look, and our gut knows – this is a Jew.  They don’t want us to catch them, to say hi, to push a conversation they do not want to have.  Perhaps they feel they don’t belong.

But guess what, they do.

You – the one who hurried by – YOU are the one I want to talk to.  You have a seat at the table just like your Shabbat dinner-asking friend.  Your curls are mine, your questions are mine.  Where do I belong?  Do I know enough?  Do my parents’ choices and mine need to be the same?  I get it, I’m with you, let’s do coffee.

Hope to see you in September, student rushing by.



Coffee with Myself

coffee selfieThis quiet, dreaming summer of mine is getting ready to give way to the burst of energy that is the start of a new school year.  In this spirit, my family and I headed out of town last weekend to my parents’ house, in the hopes of capturing a moment in time before it all keeps rolling forward.

Worn out by her grandparents’ endless entertaining, I met a rare moment on Sunday when I awoke before my 2 year old daughter.  I snuck out of my room, husband slumbering, and as is my usual autopilot direction, I headed to the coffee maker.  Cup in hand, my instinct was to turn something on – a phone waiting with emails, a TV filled with images.  But the phone was in the bedroom and Sunday morning TV at 6:30 doesn’t offer great promise for engagement.

So I sat with my coffee and myself.

Silence is hard to come by in this world, whether because of our technological tethers or the friends and family we surround ourselves with.  I know for myself that at times, I’m scared of what might creep in – whether the uncertainties of the future or the hard knowledge that I have a difficult time being with myself after devoting myself so wholly to the happy distractions of others.

On the cusp of the new school year & the new Jewish year, in the thick of the holy month of Elul, I ask myself as much as I ask of you: Are you making time for silence?  Are you willing to confront what comes when the distractions are stripped away and you have to focus on who you are in this moment, and who you are aiming to be?