I have been working with children for over a decade now.
I can barely remember when I started minding the little ones. From daycare to babysitting to nannying, along with having been a night nurse twice and having interned for politicians who promoted policies that benefitted children in various ways, life always circles back to the children. I am a certified infant-toddler teacher in Massachusetts. I went to an education college where even basic courses like Statistics related to children in some way. I was the only person on my 2012 Birthright trip who worked with children—and had my Birthright guide, Matt, pick Lev as my Hebrew middle name for my Bat Mitzvah on Masada, saying I had a “good heart because [I] work[ed] with kids”—and consequently was the only person who held the crying baby on the flight from Frankfurt to New York, in addition to being the only person from my trip to move to Israel. Out of all the Masa Israel programs I could have chosen to do in 2013, I elected to be an Israel Teaching Fellow in Netanya and to volunteer in an orphanage. My love for my students shone through, which is why I was the first Fellow at my school to have ever been offered a full-time job had I chosen to make Aliyah. I was also offered a nanny position in Tel Aviv. I turned both of those positions down, saying that when I came back to Massachusetts in June of 2014 that there would be a job in Jewish/Israel advocacy waiting for me. But I was wrong.
Despite my pessimism these days, my childcare business is booming. I don’t even use the online babysitting websites that have supplemented my income the past few years anymore because I get so many referrals from clients. I can barely keep up. And while I adore the children I care for—along with their parents who treat me like a princess—it’s hard. There are a lot of better nannies and babysitters out there—ones who drive and who can cook something other than macaroni and cheese. Being a nanny and babysitter long-term was one thing when I was twenty-two or twenty-three—but at twenty-six? It just feels like a great opportunity for someone a little younger than me. I should have a “real job” by now.
What I do is never taken seriously by the higher-ups. It’s such a shame because working for so many families requires me to use skills that the “real world” needs. It doesn’t matter if I find the hours that my clients want as inconvenient; I have had to rearrange my personal life in order to make their lives easier. I have done whatever it takes, just like a good employee does. I have given up going to events or the gym to help my clients when they or their children are sick. I split my time between two to four families a day during this past Christmas because I don’t celebrate it and there were more Christmas parties to cover than I knew what to do with. Twenty-hour days became the norm. I know how to be flexible, patient and calm under pressure. I remain grateful for my clients—and that I even have a job with my worthless bachelor’s degree—but I don’t want to do this forever.
People ask me what I want to do. I have applied for positions in the Jewish world for years I can see myself thriving in and ones I thought my unique experience would benefit. But, after strings of rejection after rejection, I don’t really know what I want to do. I worked so hard for my stupid American Studies degree…and I don’t know what to do with it. Maybe I was stupid to spend all that time and energy and money.
But the worst part is that I really don’t know if I have stayed in the childcare business for over a decade because of laziness, stupidity, loyalty or fear.
I have tried to be an advocate for Israel in my own way, even though the “real world” doesn’t see my work as important. I buy Israeli products and go to Jewish/Israel events on the rare nights I don’t have to work. I educate my clients—the majority of them not being Jewish—about Israel. I teach the children—both Jewish and not—Hebrew. I tell them about my time in Israel and teach them about Jewish holidays, foods and traditions. My name gets passed around between Jewish families because I know how to maintain a kosher kitchen, even though I don’t keep kosher myself. It was my Jewish clients in 2013—along with a few non-Jewish ones—who gave me money and clothes for Israel. I may not be standing on a stage at a college advocating for Israel, but I am doing something. And, less than two months ago, after yet another rejection, someone finally recognized my work, for the interim, anyway.
It all started back in mid-December. I had to work with four different families in one day while also doing the first of two Skype interviews for a program called TALMA. I had gotten rejected from the program earlier in the year, but with new people doing interviews this time around, I thought I had a shot; after all, with all the work I do with children and how I excelled as an Israel Teaching Fellow, how could I not get accepted to a program that consisted of participants teaching English for a month in Israel? A few days later on a Saturday morning, I was up at 5:00AM to babysit, had another client later in the day and was waiting to work for a third family that night after I would have my final Skype interview. While little Henry and I waited at the bus stop a few hours after my interview had happened, my phone pinged with an email. I was rejected from TALMA. Again. I told Henry I wouldn’t cry because I was a big girl. His father, bless his soul, had been kind enough to watch Henry while my interview went nowhere. I went back to my apartment—my evening gig now having been cancelled—and drank with my downstairs neighbors. Even though we talked and drank, I still didn’t feel content. It was pretty obvious that I had no clue what to do about my situation. I was livid. I was hurt. And I was just bewildered, wondering if I would ever get back to Israel.
On Christmas Eve I had seen a post on Facebook from my Masa friend Jennifer. She posted on behalf of someone at IsraelExperts saying that they needed a last-minute staff member for an upcoming Birthright trip. They needed someone over twenty-five who could handle a group that was half American and half Brazilian, could do the dates of January 4th to January 17th and would not be able to extend their trip. After so many rejections, I debated about applying. At that point with the process being no skin off of my nose, I sent Jennifer’s friend a message on Facebook. She gave me the email of someone else at IsraelExperts and then that person forwarded my email to a woman at the company named Einat. It was now a Sunday and I was watching Henry again. Einat emailed me to say that my email sounded great and asked if she could call me. I cried. She called me the next evening and I told her my story. I told her that Birthright helped me explore my Jewish identity and that it led me to move to Israel. I also told her that I have had trouble getting my foot in the door of the Jewish world and that if I was accepted to staff this trip, my clients would understand how important this was for me. Einat said everything sounded great and asked if I needed a few days to think about staffing or if I was ready to move forward. I told her I was ready to move forward and she said she’d email me the paperwork in the morning. I was shaking. I was crying.
I was going back to Israel. In SIX days.
Trying to prep to staff a Birthright trip with only six days was difficult. There were mountains of paperwork I had to complete—not an easy task with my phone in one hand and a baby in the other—, reading through staff materials, emailing my co-madricha, Haley, trying to pack, arranging coverage for my clients and buying a round-trip plane ticket to New York. This all made me appreciate my own Birthright madrichim, Matt and Stacey, so much more. Once I finished all my paperwork and joined the Facegroup group for my bus, I was able to put up the inevitable Facebook status. People were both happy and stunned. They knew how badly I wanted this. It didn’t even seem real.
Soon enough, the day came when I had to make my way to Logan Airport in Boston. I brought my Katniss Everdeen doll with me, a doll that had traveled all around Israel with me when I used to live there. We spent a long day together at JFK Airport in New York and then ran over paperwork with the fifteen Americans who would be joining me on the journey to Israel. I talked to them and learned their stories. I laid out the ground rules and told them to keep open minds. I gave them candy that I had bought so they could pop their ears, both on the flights and on the bus we would take in Israel as I had learned this the hard way from my own trip. We would eventually begin our long journey to Turkey, deal with a layover and then, after what seemed like an eternity, we started the journey closer to Israel. As the plane flew over Tel Aviv, I couldn’t help but smile and tell my participants to look out the windows. The lights were just as shiny as I had always known them.
We all made our way into Ben Gurion Airport shortly after, dealt with passport control, retrieved our luggage and met with someone from IsraelExperts who was taking pictures of us and going over some formalities. I was given my staff name tag, something I had dreamed of for so long. We then made our way to the arrivals area and met Itai, our Israeli madrich. We boarded our bus to Neve Shalom, a place I had stayed in during my own trip. The ride was short, which was much needed after all the flying. After getting keys, it was off to my room. The Brazilian side of the group, along with the Israelis, would be joining us in the morning. I curled up in bed and sleep came easily.
The next morning was busy. The Brazilians and the Israelis now arrived. I finally got to meet my co-madricha, Haley and then we had to get the group—now going from my fifteen participants to forty-two all together—into a room for a discussion. We all introduced ourselves, did the “Achim, Simcha…” dance and explained what Birthright was. After that, it was off for a long day of exploring Caesarea and Haifa. I was really able to shine as a madricha in Haifa by helping my participants exchange their money, recommending food choices and teaching them basic Hebrew. I only had brief moment to myself and that was when I went to the supermarket. It was both nice and strange to see the products I used to buy in Netanya. I almost think I was desensitized to Israel after being back in America for just over a year and a half. While Israel will never lose her luster, I am just so…comfortable there.
Staffing Birthright allowed me to see all the places I love so much—the Western Wall, the Dead Sea, Tel Aviv, etc.—but now I was able to see these places not just as a Birthright participant or a pseudo-resident, but through my participants’ eyes. I would hear them on the bus talking about their favorite places, what they were excited to see and what they had learned. They would ask me for gift suggestions and several of them asked me how to get back to Israel after Birthright. We had this one night where I was talking to some of the girls about lost loves and lessons learned on my journey in Israel and we looked up at the stars. I felt that same sense of peace that I felt the night before I climbed up Masada in 2012 on my Birthright trip, in addition to the inner voice that told me I needed to come back to Israel. It still lingers inside of me. I left my participants with the lesson that Israel was not a perfect place, but for the Jews, it is their home. I hope they understood.
Of course, Israel is not all sunshine and roses. And neither is staffing Birthright. While I had been blessed with the majority of my participants wanting to learn more about Israel and the idiosyncrasies that make her the gem that she is, I also had participants whose cacophony of vacuous prattle rang through my ears every day. “I’m bored.” “I’m hungry.” “I don’t care about history…” God, I felt like my stomach had been through a paper shredder. These people had absolutely nothing interesting to say, and, what bothered me the most, zero intellectual curiosity whatsoever. They would be doing the universe a massive favor by dropping out of college and giving up their space to people who desired to learn new things. I remain convinced that they are Hell-bent on attaining complete brain atrophy before they’re thirty. While I am used to occasionally being disrespected from some of the older children I watch, they have a right to do that and I roll with it because they are children. But the level of disrespect that I was faced with from these adult sour grapes was absolutely unparalleled to what I have dealt with in my line of work.
I had jokingly said to Einat during my phone interview that cranky babies would be no different than cranky adults. As a matter of fact, cranky babies are easier to deal with.
I just wanted one day—ONE DAY—where everyone got on the bus on time. Or could do a count-off properly. Or would stop jumping out of line to take pictures. We had to have two guards with us due to the security situation in Jerusalem and it was absolutely imperative that the group stayed together. Did they listen? Most of them did. But there were a few of my participants who refused to heed my warnings. While the “benefit” of having to cancel our trip to Machane Yehuda and our night out in Jerusalem was that the participants took the side of the Israelis (since the media vilifies Israel at every and any expense and now my participants got to see the truth about the security situation), telling my most difficult participant about the situation led to him calling me, in front of a sizeable group of people, a “fear-mongering FOX News watcher.” I may be a writer, but I was at a loss for words. I came to realize that you can always try to reach out to someone, but sometimes all you will get back is a slap in the face.
This moment had been the cherry on top of the sad moments that had plagued my soul throughout the trip. Israel, I think, has the tendency to bring out different emotions and not just for me. I had reached out to several of my friends who were either staffing trips at the moment or who were living in Israel and while I was grateful to run into Sara, Shelly and Ethan from ITF–Netanya (along with our madrich Raoul and another madrich, Eliran) and Amanda from ITF–Rehovot, our meetings were far too short. Furthermore, everyone else I reached out to was busy, not staffing in the same cities as me or didn’t respond at all. The only person who came out of their way to see me was Inoy, a guy I had met though Masa’s Mifgashim series in 2014. We met at Max Brenner on the designated night out in Tel Aviv. We ordered milkshakes and Inoy asked me how the trip was going. Through my peripheral vision, I saw two of my participants in the restaurant sitting behind me. My emotions ranged from infinite joy over being back in Israel and deep, deep sorrow for how I had been treated by the sour grapes. I had still been struggling to make sense of everything. All I felt was despair. And so I cried.
I cried because I love Israel and was happy to spend money stimulating the Israeli economy and doing my part to counter BDS. I cried because I love my clients, even though they’re powerless to get me a job in Israel advocacy. I cried because I don’t have the jobs I see my Masa comrades having. I cried because I wasn’t able to meet up with my other friends—both Israeli and American. I cried because someone I reached out to didn’t respond to me and I have had so many things I have kept bottled up inside me for almost two years that need to be said to this person. I cried because I remembered the blessings that were my students in Netanya and because I missed them. And I cried because I want to spend more time in Israel. It certainly wasn’t the first time I have wanted to come back to Israel since being back in America. So I let the tears come, optimistic that the crying jag would burn itself out.
Misery, though, has tremendous staying power.
It was hard to squeeze declarations of love for Israel and sorrow over the sour grapes into a short encounter. I could, however, squeeze my milkshake, and Inoy, as long as he’d let me.
After we had parted ways and I cleaned up my face, I went to an AM:PM to buy my favorite yogurts that I used to eat all the time when I lived in Nentaya. It was amazing how three drinkable yogurts—yogurts I would sell my firstborn for—could lift me up so much. But I believe in little things.
This trip was full of ups and downs. I was so grateful for the opportunity to staff this trip, despite the struggles. Like with Israel advocacy, it does no one any favors to say something is perfect when it isn’t. Life is full of juxtapositions. The juxtaposition of the good and bad that Israel has seen in all her years was really showcased when we went to Yad Vashem. I have been there twice and staying strong is not easy. The day we went was the day that Iran had increased the value of money they would be giving to the person who would come up with the best cartoon that depicted the denial of the Holocaust. I would like to think that the tears on my participants’ faces were enough for them to get that there is no denying the Holocaust. I repeated to them that Israel was around before the Holocaust—it was not “given” to the Jews by Europe, contrary to the anti-Jewish discourse that permeates throughout most of the world—and that she still stands due to the courageous actions of the Israel Defense Forces. We went to Mt. Herzl the next day and were approached by a middle-aged man. He spoke to us in Hebrew and we thought he was yelling at us. It turns out that he was asking us to do the Mourner’s Kaddish with him and his wife. This man’s son had been stabbed to death by a Palestinian terrorist a few months before and during the Second Intifada, this man’s brother stood in front of a Palestinian suicide bomber, dying in the process but saving numerous lives. The group broke. Still, despite the sadness, this moment hit home that the Jews are family. We have to look out for each other, no matter how different we are. No one else will help us. I remain confident that this hit home for most of the group. While I can’t convince everyone, I did damn well try.
Memories of this trip are laced with moments from everyone at IsraelExperts. Ariel split his time between different groups, but he loved us just the same. Einat, the woman who gave me this chance to staff (and retrieved my debit card that I dropped in a bookstore in Haifa). Itai, who had the patience of a saint, Dean and Daniel, our guards who fixed every medical malady possible and my co-madricha, Haley. Haley was so powerful. She was charming, commanding and confident. A Massachusetts native and a gifted singer; one note out of her mouth combined with her fingers plucking the strings of her ukulele could get most of the group quiet within minutes. Of course, she had her fair share of problems with the group as well, but she shone nonetheless. She was a gem.
Once the long journey back to America began after a whirlwind trip, I was forced to say goodbye to Israel, her people, the staff and my group. We left Birthright behind and headed back to reality. I believe that years from now my participants will look back on their trip, hopefully with smiles, for what once was, and will never be again. They have now seen Israel up close and they know that she is open to them, whether they come back for a vacation, a long-term program or make Aliyah. I have donated money to Birthright in the hopes that young Jews, including the Jewish children I babysit, are given the same opportunities that I have been lucky enough to have.
Staffing Birthright allowed me to rediscover the satisfactions and joys of teaching, even though I don’t always have clear answers for my motives of why I went into such a thankless worthwhile profession. If I don’t remember the good things about trying to share my knowledge with people of all sorts of ages, I am on the path to developing a cerebral hemorrhage. While working with adults is different than children, it is similar, too. My nursing skills came in handy when I had to stay behind with one of the sick Israelis, when I had to take a sick participant to the emergency room and when I doled out hand sanitizer after everyone touched the stray cats. I at least proved to myself—although I wish the higher-ups saw this—that my skills with children transfer over to adults. Still, I will take the only insult I received from one of the children I watch since I came back from Israel last month—“You, with glasses”—over “fear-mongering Fox News watcher.”
Nowadays business is back to normal. My clients survived without me thanks to my younger sister, Devon and one of my roommates from college, Lindsay, covering for me. They all loved their presents. My phone beeps all the time with coverage needed for sick days and date nights. Money is steady, although I won’t pretend that I have everything figured out; I clearly don’t. I am just shooting in the dark and trying to figure out something that works for me. Career-wise, I still haven’t made much progress. I thought That since I promoted Masa on this trip and the fact that I was accepted to staff this trip with only six days of preparation would impress Masa, but alas, I got rejected from their delegation to AIPAC for the second year in a row. I received that email as I was watching baby Charlotte, an infant who lives on the same street as one of my clients who always gives out my name and keeps me in business (and allowing me to pay off one of my three student loans completely this past summer.) I always seem to get these rejection emails whenever I’m at work. While I love Masa for the other chances I have gotten through them, I wanted to go to AIPAC so badly. If only they understood that it is my clients’ flexibility that has allowed me to go to Jewish/Israel events as long as I find them coverage. The blue nail polish I have been wearing lately represents the biting feeling of failure that continues to grow as rejection emails continue to pour in. The gray hairs that spout from the part in my hair are the outward manifestations that have derived from the constant indignities I suffer at the hands of the “real world’s” lack of respect for my work.
I will end with that before I got accepted to staff this Birthright trip, I used to feel both happy and sad when I would see my Jewish friends post status updates about how they would be staffing trips. As I would sit with a baby in my left arm and my phone in my right, I never could figure out if the tears that would stain my shirt were from the baby or from me. But thanks to Einat, my tears, while deriving from some sad parts of the trip, were also from tears of joy. She has no idea what she did for me.
I survived being back in Israel after a year and a half. But most importantly, I survived being a madricha and all it cost me was a huge period of self-doubt coupled with a cold stretch of self-loathing. And, despite my struggles, I would absolutely do it again if I could. While I do recognize that I relate to children easier—and I would rather have the innocence of a child than the pitying looks from an adult—I want a new challenge. But it’s up to higher-ups. They have forced me to accept that toddlers will not get me TALMA, children will not get me CAMERA, munchkins will not get me (some of) Masa and adolescents will not get me AIPAC.
These are hard facts to reconcile.
But at least, after years of longing, babies got me Birthright.