And God said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
This week Jews around the world will read about God’s commandment to Abraham, the founder of our faith, to leave his native land and his family to embark on a life-changing journey.
On Monday my wife Bina, a doctoral student in anthropology, our two sons aged three and a half and one, and I, an Orthodox rabbi will embark on a journey of our own as we move to Dakar, Senegal for the year as Bina conducts field research for her doctorate.
For the past four years my wife and I have had the amazing privilege of being the OU-JLIC Jewish Educators at the Princeton University Hillel, while Bina was also a PhD student in Anthropology and Ethnomusicology at the University of Pennsylvania. We lived right next to campus in a beautiful house with a backyard, hosted hundreds of students at our house for Shabbat and holiday meals and spent thousands of hours teaching and studying Torah with the amazing and brilliant students on campus. In many ways it was a dream – working with an inspiring staff and students, living in suburban America, drinking delicious lattes and sharing a playground with the children of professors. An average day at the sandbox may look like this, “What do you do?”
“Oh, I teach German medieval philosophy and my husband is an art history professor” our neighbor would say, as our children poured sand on each other.
So why give this up to move to West Africa?
Well, my wife has been in love with the anthropology of Africa since she was in high school. After finishing the Israeli army she didn’t want to hike in India or South America like most of her friends; instead she spent nearly a year backpacking from South Africa all the way up to Egypt. On a detour to Burkina Faso, she fell in love with West Africa, the culture, people, and the music, and decided that she wanted to do a PhD in Anthropology in order to better understand that corner of the world. After finishing her course work, Bina planned her field research in Dakar, which is why an Orthodox Jewish family in Princeton ends up moving to Senegal.
How does one make such a move? Well, it takes a village.
Take for example how we found our apartment: A few months ago I was corresponding with a colleague who told me that his wife has a friend who works in an international foundation that may have contacts in Senegal. Bina and I called his wife’s friend who put us in touch with a colleague who lives in Dakar. This woman, whom we had never met, spent hours on the phone with us, explaining the nuances of the schools in Dakar, and even offering to take a day off from work to help us find an apartment. We also got the number of a person in Dakar who went to the apartment that we found and took a video of it that he sent over WhatsApp so that we could see our place before we get there.
I have countless examples of people around the world going out of their way to help us with our adventure. When we reflect on how many people have helped us get ready for this trip over the past few months, ranging from rabbis in Israel and America to travel agents and total strangers we are overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude and excitement. There is a phrase that people use a lot in Senegal which roughly translates to “We are all in this together.” We definitely feel that about our upcoming trip.
Our kids, especially our oldest son, is really excited about our trip. He knows that his mother is interested in studying African drumming and has recently started improvising his own African dance moves. He is also a bit confused. A few days ago he turned to us and said, ‘You know, we are already in Senegal, they just don’t have any drums here.’
Yet not everyone has been so enthusiastic about our adventure.
“You’re moving where!? Do you even know where that is on the map?!”An incredulous person asked me a few months ago when I told him that I was leaving my job as a rabbi and Jewish educator at Princeton University to move to Dakar, Senegal for a year. Yes, I do know where that is on the map, and in fact, I’ve already been there, I explained to him. Another parent of young children recently told my wife that this is a horrible idea and informed her that he would never do something like this to his kids. Maybe we are crazy. The truth is that there have been many times in the past few months that we have questioned our decision to move to Senegal for a year. It is going to be challenging and very different from anything we have done before. Nevertheless, we are still very excited for this once in a life time opportunity.
On Saturday night I met up with a friend a learned with him a piece from Rabbi Natan of Nemirov, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s main disciple. He commented on God’s commandment to move to Israel saying that: “Every person in the world, whether they are young or old goes through many adventures in their life. All of these adventures have their ups and downs. The important thing is to remember that God has good intentions for you on all of your adventures and your job is to raise up and improve the world as you continue on your journey.” (Likutei Halachot Shabbat 7). I took great comfort in this insight. There is a way of looking at all of life as an adventure. The question we all face is how do relate to our daily lives: As routine or as unique and new opportunities for an adventure? My family is about to embark on a particularly ambitious journey. I hope that it is a meaningful, growth filled and fun trip and that we are able to appreciate this unique experience both when it is easy, as well as when it proves challenging.
Bon Voyage! Next post will be from Dakar!