From CTeen to Crown Heights

There is a famous saying that goes: “Man plans and G-d laughs.” I’ve always found that quote to be equally funny and unnerving. We think we’re in control. We think we know where we’re going. But, G-d sometimes has plans for us that are different than the ones we make for ourselves.

I heard this quote for the first time two years ago, when my life took a turn and began to take shape towards the path I am on today, on a flight destined for New York from my home state of Texas. I was traveling with a group of teens like myself to the CTeen International Shabbaton. In my mind, it was going to be just another weekend.

Truth be told, before becoming involved with Chabad, I had never been so fond of my religion. I never understood all the rules and regulations. I was a non-practicing Jew who grudgingly went to shul for Rosh Hashana and fasted on Yom Kippur. It’s not that I hated being Jewish, but I never had a connection. I couldn’t see myself living a thoroughly Jewish lifestyle.

Walking the streets of Crown Heights that first time, I felt rejuvenated, I felt like I belonged. Throughout Shabbat, I took part in various lectures and workshops, all which helped me better understand the religion that I had for so long been confused by. I gained so much Jewish pride from that weekend, I was inspired to be a better Jew.

Time passed and life went on. School became a top priority, journalism kept me busy, and varsity basketball took a toll on me physically. Yes, it sounds like I was just living the life of an average high schooler pursuing my passions and dreams trying to figure out my place in this world. But there was one fascination that was never fully quenched; Judaism.

I realized G-d was playing a part in my life when, that summer, I met some life changing friends. While working at our local Camp Gan Izzy, my fellow counselors inspired me. They were there for me at all hours, listening to my questions and concerns about living a Jewish life, and inspiring me to grow. I gained knowledge about the teachings of Judaism, and it ignited an inspiration that pushed me to strengthen my Jewish identity.

My fervor grew. Step by step I started becoming more observant: first came Shabbat, then came keeping kosher. Slowly but surely, I finally felt like I had conquered my fears and understood where I belonged.

By the time my senior year of high school rolled around, I found myself in a slump. I knew I wasn’t where I was meant to be. Something felt like it was missing from within me. I needed more. I needed to take my Judaism to the next level. Through a very whirlwind set of events, the help of my local Chabad Rabbi and Rebbetzin, Rabbi Yudi and Esther Horowitz, and the tremendous love and support from my family, I found myself on a new path towards making Judaism mine. Four months into my senior year, I packed up my bags and left Plano, destined once again for Crown Heights, which would now become my home for the rest of the year.

Moving to Crown Heights was an altogether new experience for me. I was set to attend Machon Chana, a seminary style program for girls of varying religious backgrounds. I dove head first into the learning, ready to soak up every ounce of knowledge that the teachers had to offer. If there’s one thing I learned from being part of CTeen it’s to not be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. I pushed myself into new planes of knowledge, and soon enough I became ready to tackle subjects that were once difficult and challenging.

Which is why when the time came for the 2016 International Shabbaton, I was ready to see my potential. I wanted to give back to the people and organization who had given me so much. Jumping from a “teen” badge to a “staff” badge in just a year was my greatest opportunity. I was humbled to partake and see just how much dedication all of CTeen Headquarters puts into making this shabbaton a life changing weekend.

After the meal and workshops on Friday night, I went downstairs to find a few girls from my home chapter in a deep, heavy discussion about Judaism with their chaperones. I sat down, intrigued. As a bystander, the conversation sparked my curiosity. These were the same questions I had been asking for the past two years; these were the questions that had led me here in the first place.  At one point, the chaperones were whisked away to take care of something in a different room, leaving me to answer the questions.  At first, I was terrified. What if I got the answers wrong? What if I didn’t know the answers? I didn’t want to let my peers down.

Question after question, I answered with as much knowledge as I had. To my surprise, the girls’ faces lit up with every answer and new insight I provided. When I finally made my way to the seminary dorm that night, I ran up excitedly to my dorm counselors room. Jumping on to her bed, the clock said midnight but neither of us had sleep in mind. With a light in my eyes and a huge smile, I repeated everything that had just happened. And as she smiled back with a proud beaming grin, I saw my hard work and growth come to life. I saw my journey come full circle.

A word of advice to others beginning their journey: Whatever your goals are, however you mean to make Judaism part of your life: embrace the challenge and the change! Take on something new; explore, be curious, find the answers to the burning questions. Find your purpose.

I did just that, and I have never been happier. Ask anyone who knows me and they’d tell you the same. None of them would have predicted this life for me 5 years ago. But, like we know:

Man plans and G-d laughs.

About the Author
Risa Mond, a 19-year-old adventurous living out her dreams in New York. As an employee of CTeen, an international Jewish youth organization, Risa believes that youth posses the power to change the world, and strives to live by example.
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