I spent last Sunday through Thursday in Jerusalem for the 2013 Masa Israel Leadership Summit. This summit brought together various Jews from different Masa programs who are “part of a group of chosen young leaders from Jewish communities throughout the world,” as my certificate for participating in the summit says. I definitely appreciated the summit beyond words, but this wasn’t due to staying in the fabulous Hotel Yehudah, five days of not buying or cooking food or meeting other young Jews. No, I appreciated this summit because Masa, like Birthright, gave me a second chance to be a leader.
*Gala with the members of ITF-Netanya who were chosen to attend the Leadership Summit–ignore the creepy eyes! December 16th, 2013*
I have always struggled socially at school. I was one of the few Jews in my elementary school and I was not rich like the other kids in my class. At my first high school, I was constantly being teased for my weight, being a prude, my home situation and for struggling academically. My second high school was wonderful, but I was only there for less than two years. Since things had been able to turn around at my second high school, I began to feel better about myself. I was the youngest employee at the daycare center I worked at and saw myself continuing to work with children. My father told me that once I entered college, I would earn my riches after coming from rags. Unfortunately, I was about to be proven wrong—big time.
I suppose it’s my own fault that my “happy ending” was not achieved at my college. After all, I entered my college under the impression that this institution was an intelligent place committed to serious academic interests with the main goal of turning America’s young adults into teachers. I never thought that my college would be a place where the administrators are corrupt and uncaring, the students are appallingly ignorant and the entire place is geared exclusively to the pursuit of funding. I also didn’t expect that I would one day intern in the Massachusetts State House as the first sophomore Student Policy Fellow and still get rejected from leadership positions due to “too many applicants” (liars). Student Life (whom I went through when applying for Orientation Leader, Summer Bridge Assistant and Resident Assistant) had no idea what the Student Policy Fellows program even was.
I may have graduated college two years ago, but the sting of the numerous rejections from the myriad of leadership positions I applied to—First Year Seminar leader (known as a TLC), Orientation Leader, Writing Consultant (I was rejected twice and this was a position I originally had a whopping SEVEN recommendations for), Summer Bridge Assistant, Peer Tutor, Resident Assistant and tutor to low-income high-schoolers who attended an after-school program at my college—still remains. I was not rejected due to “too many applicants.” I was rejected because I challenged the status quo. I didn’t believe that rich girls, who had no interest in working with children but came to Boston because they thought it was a party city, should be running the place. I didn’t believe that I deserved to be sexually harassed and have that swept under the rug. I didn’t believe that my severely limited financial aid deserved to go to athletes who ended up transferring from the college anyway. And because I didn’t agree with these atrocities, I was never able to be a leader. While I enjoyed my work in the State House, interning for my congressman the next year and then going on to intern with a political party in London, my college never saw those things as important. The only recognition I ever received was my acceptance to Pi Gamma Mu my junior year. The person who personally oversaw my application, Kate, was the only person in a Student Life position who ever believed in me. She was my Resident Assistant my sophomore year and she was the best RA I ever had. I wanted to be just like her—caring, determined and a leader. I didn’t get the chance to do that under her guise. I didn’t get the chance to do that in London. But with my Jews? They are my second chance.
I will always reiterate that I cannot say anything bad about last year’s Birthright trip. I enjoyed trying new foods, learning about different cultures and having my analytical packing skills pay off. I learned from my mistakes in London and just had an amazing time. The country was wonderful. The locals were wonderful. The weather was wonderful. My Birthright guides were wonderful. My Birthrighters were wonderful. I had the time of my life and had finally smiled after months of darkness. I did things I had never done before like hiking and I learned a multitude of new words. I gained a better understanding of Judaism. I had a Bat Mitzvah on the top of Masada and picked my Hebrew name, Talia Lev (see my post “Lev”). My soul was at peace. Summer had cloaked almost everything around me in warm tones. I saw palm trees so tall, it seemed like their tops were touching the sky. Fruits fell in unison from the palm trees and created enough noise that it sounded like the tail end of a standing ovation. The same breezes that moved the fruits were blowing at my open hands, a catch-me-if-you-can proposition I could not resist. Bars of sunlight shone through branches, illuminating old stone and inviting magnificent views of recessed rocks. Of course, my experience did have some setbacks—like a busted foot from hiking in the Golan Heights and a broken heart from a one-sided crush (see my post “A Nice, Jewish Boy”)—but despite these things, I knew that my life was truly overflowing with happiness thanks to the Jews and the kindness they showed me. Yes, there certainly had been days and moments in Israel that I had to look a little harder to see the happiness scattered amongst the sorrow. But the joy and happiness were there; I just needed to know where to look.
Birthright, among other factors, gave me the push to move to Israel. I’ve been here for almost four months and I like to think that I have been given a second chance. I’m respected by the administration at my school and my students adore me. My cohort likes me and respects my work. Despite my limited Hebrew, I am always being shown instances of Israeli hospitality and I know that the Jewish community is here for me when I need them. They are giving me the confidence to be a leader, something that has seemed unattainable for so long. Leader, I say, with a question mark at the end. I whisper that word like I wish the world could see how Israel is a leader. Myself and my other Jewish comrades hear it with the same hunger.
My Pi Gamma Mu pin stares up at me from the middle of my oversized bag, a silent rebuke of my college’s rejections and a reminder that Kate was the only leader who ever saw me as having a sliver of a chance of being a leader. This should not be my dilemma—staring at that pin and wondering if it means anything in the grand scheme of things. My concern should be moving forward and only focusing on the Jewish community who gives me support when the rest of the world shut me out. Still, I wonder what I should do with the pin—keep it on my bag, hide it in my sewing case, put it on my Katniss Everdeen Barbie doll that I carry with me or save it for posterity. I find myself feeling indecisive and feeling vulnerable and the losses I suffered in college still strike vicious and unheralded. I am still shocked at the ferocity of my misery, my envy, my missing, even two years later.
Surely it’s not about my dreams of leadership being dead, I tell the other Masa participants, but about how alive my pain remains.
I am trying to convince myself as much as these people.
It was towards the end of my Chanukah vacation when I had received the email from Masa saying I had been accepted to the Leadership Summit. I was at lunch in Kent with my second cousins Hilary and her husband, Wally and they were over the moon for me. My Wi-Fi connection had died out shortly after receiving the email and since the Wi-Fi was having issues in Hilary and Wally’s house, I wasn’t able to check my emails until I got to Stansted Airport the next morning. Apparently shortly after I had received my acceptance letter, an email from Masa came through saying that they were not able to hold a spot for me at the Summit. It would’ve been easier to have just rejected me outright than to give me false hope, like I had suffered in college when people would say how they had heard I done well in an interview. I held in the tears, seeing as I was not about to cry in front of all these random passengers. I tried to use the good memories from my trip to get me through the day, but this was incredibly arduous. Dealing with the mess of getting home from Ben Gurion Airport later on that night (see my post “You Can’t Take Israel Out Of Me”) didn’t help. I spent the next two days in a daze. My Fellow, Aliyah, had suggested I talk to our madrich to see if he could do anything. He told me to email him any correspondence from Masa and I did that night. The next morning, my madrich texted me saying that the rejection email was a bug in the system and that I was going to the summit. I couldn’t believe it and I was not able to wipe the stupid grin off of my face. I remember calling my father about it and he was beyond thrilled for me. I’m not used to getting good news very often (although my Jews have helped to rectify this), so he was thrilled for me, as were Cassie, her father and Hilary when I told her that the rejection email had been a mistake. I had a spring in my step that no one could steal from me.
Getting to the Leadership Summit was treacherous, both emotionally and physically. Since Jerusalem had been crushed by snow, this resulted in myself, most of the Fellows representing Netanya and other Masa participants making the way to Hotel Yehudah by ourselves. We had gotten to the train station in Tel Aviv in order to wait for a bus to take us to the hotel (as had been the case when I had participated in a seminar about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict last month), but since the buses were not coming due to bad roads in Jerusalem, we all bought train tickets and hopped the 12:53PM train to the Biblical Zoo. After a long journey on the train and a twenty-minute walk through the snow, we finally reached Hotel Yehudah. Our rooms, dinner and breakfast the next day were still being honored and while we had been planning to jump into the first day’s activities right away, it was kind of nice having everything pushed off to the next day because this allowed us to relax and make new connections with various Masa participants. I met Israel Teaching Fellows from other towns. I met the Jews who were doing internships. I met Israelis who share their passion for tikkun olam. I took a lot away from the Leadership Summit from the various lectures, breakout sessions and home group sessions (shout out to group one!) that were offered, but it was the other Masa participants who made such a powerful impact on me.
With blonde, brunette or red hair and courage to burn, with nametags hanging around their necks and whiffs of the complimentary lotion offered in the bathrooms on their hands, they step out into the hallways. They are curious, smart and sharp as a tack. They can hold up their wine glasses in a classy way, but when you ask them to not touch the creepy piano on the fourth floor that plays itself almost ghostlike, they cross their arms over their chests as if predisposed to noncompliance. Except they’re not. It’s just that they have the sensitivity of a divining rod and moods like weather fronts. They are experimenting with independence in the way that young leaders do. It’s just that they are leaders. If you ask whether they would like to get extra downtime or randomly acquire free ice cream on the second floor, they sing-song ken, ken and the smile that spreads across their face rivals the sun.
The lovely Masa participants I saw last week—both the old and the new—are bold, busy and wildly amusing. I derived such extreme pleasure from their company. Except in the line in the dining room. Waiting in line with them to get food was like being next to the hands of a clock. Or with an octopus. Something all legs and arms, a continuous motion machine. I know that waiting in a line is not something that is popular here. But during the other times through the summit and through my experiences in Israel, I really do derive such extreme pleasure from their company. Vibrant and with a zest for life, they point and they realize there are exclamation marks all over the place. And with a little help from Kate who never gave up on me, Birthright for pulling me from the darkness and for Masa giving me a second chance to make things right, I see the exclamation marks, too.