Look Down, Look Up

IMG_4986The night before I moved to college at NYU, 18 years ago this fall, my parents and I ate in a diner in Elizabeth, New Jersey.  As I cried into my food, ridden with anxiety at the biggest change of my life, our waitress offered her unsolicited advice.   With long nails and sky high hair, her thick Jersey accent shared: ‘Whatever you do, don’t look up!  If you do, they’ll know you are a tourist and they’ll mug you!’

Who ‘they’ was, I don’t know.  But her words stuck with me throughout college and for the rest of my ongoing urban existence.  Keep it moving.  Look like you belong.  Turn inwards or else you’ll be opened to the world in a way you may not want to be.

In spending the last 36 hours in New York, it struck me that a lot has changed since half a lifetime ago in Manhattan.  Mr. Softee cones seem to have doubled in price.  Every bodega I remember from college seems to have been replaced by a bank.  But not all the news is bad.

Last night, I enjoyed the company of the newest members of the GW community, many New York residents of the Class of 2022.  These hopeful beings, optimistic in their vision and ready to downsize to a smaller town down the Northeast Corridor, were born the year of my diner visit in Elizabeth.  They lived through 9/11 but blessedly may not remember it.  Their parents bought them milk in those aforementioned bodegas, but all they can potentially recall are the banks.  They enjoyed Mr. Softee cones, regardless of the price.

And last night – GW told them to look up.

The message was subtle at first, so quiet I barely noticed it.  But first an alum, then a current student, then a colleague at the university all echoed the same sentiment at this welcome event.  Worry less about your classes and more about your life.  Take your head out of your books and put it into the world’s questions, many of which are written based on the daily workings of this new city of yours.  Do not be afraid of what you may see if you look up.  Be afraid of missing what you will miss, if you keep your head down.

Have you looked up lately?  And can we work to be part of a world that encourages others to do the same?

The Great Exchange

Two big things happened in my life this week.  First, I dealt with a campus uproar.  Secondly, the city of Washington planted a tree at my house.

The tree’s auspicious appearance felt fated; I had just returned home from a massive Passover shopping expedition with my daughter, a rite of spring in endless Jewish households.  Upon arriving home, with birds chirping and sun shining, the tree had arrived just in time for the holiday; it’s dead predecessor had been removed nearly a year ago, with no indication of when the city would plant the newest Sassafras on the block.

Both before and after its’ arrival, I had been fielding phone calls and texts all day from campus.  Although deeply concerned by the comments that generated the controversy, I was and continue to be far more concerned with our student response; discomfort, after all, offers life’s best teachable moments.  Should we give the issue oxygen, perhaps bringing hatred more spotlight than it deserves?  Should we stand up for injustice, yelling from the rooftops, oxygen already given by others?  Where is the give and where is the take, on a day you are deeply saddened by how far we still have to go to create a world of peace and meaningful disagreement?

Blessedly – trees and Pesach give me endless means to sift through these unanswerable questions.  My beautiful Sassafras gives more oxygen than it takes; only when this inequality remains can the tree thrive.  The karpas we will eat tonight is alone, fresh and sweet; but when tempered with salt water, bitterness remains.  However, the bitterness of the maror is made sweeter and more palatable by the charoset.  Passover, after all, is not a story of isolation; it is a story of exchange and conversation, give and take.  Tonight, we enter into a conversation with our history, each other, and ourselves.  It is not our sole responsibility to give a conversation oxygen; in fact, it would leave us lonely and unchallenged.  Yet we must bring our voices to the table, in order to create an engaged community we all seek to be a part of.

This Passover, what oxygen will you give towards your growth and the growth of your community?

Chag Sameach from my family & from GW Hillel.

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?