It’s hard to find an organization that is so dedicated to the people it serves.
And, like several of my posts have done in the past, I must give credit for an organization that has given me more than I have ever deserved: Masa Israel.
I tried writing this post a couple of weeks ago. I tend to find myself with a ton of ideas to post to this blog and even though I try to sit down and write, well, life happens. My days are long with the children I continue to look after and then zap! My mind as of late forgets all the aforementioned ideas. By the time I get home after spending my days trying to turn these children into decent members of society, I can barely keep my eyes open. These days there has been a lot going on and people whom I do not often see want general life updates. Of course, when I try to write down these words, I end up writing free-for-all statuses on Facebook and sometimes even on here. This is still something, but it may seem a little bit boring and not what I had hoped to write. So for now, I am here and here it goes—another post about Masa Israel that will never properly express my gratitude for all of its kindness.
Masa had emailed me back in March inviting me to apply to be a member of their delegation to the 2015 AJC ACCESS Summit that would be held in Washington, D.C. the first weekend in June. The delegation would consist of Masa alumni and both the registration fee and hotel costs would be covered. I debated if I should even apply, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to try. Two days after my 26th birthday, Masa accepted me as a member of the delegation. I had decided to head up to D.C. a day early, so after consulting with my friend Rachel, a member of ITF-Petah Tikva that I had stayed with during Purim last year (see my post “Seven Months”) and getting the okay to stay with her, I booked my flights on JetBlue with a travel credit and patiently waited for June 4th to arrive.
I’m not going to lie; even though this Summit meant business, I needed to escape for a bit. As an educator, I am lucky if I can eat my lunch without having an infant or toddler hooked onto my hip. Grocery shopping is even a vacation. So is searching for rain boots at Goodwill. These small moments let me take a deep breath and get energized after long days. Truthfully, I needed more than the three days in D.C., but I will take what I can get. I tend to find myself doing the “steadily,” but not as much of the “abundantly.” But, given the state of my life and the unpredictability of my schedule, I suppose I should forgive myself more and be thankful that I can stay sane, not an easy task as an educator. Often my sanity goes out the window and I am just moving. But that works.
After an easy flight to D.C. on Thursday, June 4th and thanks to Rachel’s superb Metro instructions, I made my way to her office to drop off my overhead bag, allowing me to take in some of the sights of D.C. for a few hours. After being a good tourist by going to the White House, it was back to Rachel’s office sometime later, followed by a trip to the grocery store before heading to her apartment. It was rainy and grey, but our conversations post the last time I saw her at the Masa alumni reunion last summer (see my post “Masa Israel’s Still Got It”) were sunny. Rachel cooked dinner while we waited for Allie, a Masa alum we met back in 2013, to come over. After dinner and wine were served, our camaraderie was just as it always had been. And, now that I think about it, the presence of these amazing people should be classified under “abundantly,” for when we were together eating dinner or watching random cooking shows later on while drinking more wine and gorging on chocolate chips, that was abundant joy.
While I was happy to be away from the children I look after for a bit, my phone had blown up with three requests to babysit, not counting a request from earlier in the week. I felt a bit bad for being away, given that for the majority of my clients I am their only babysitter, but my clients knew that I needed a break and would have me back after coming back to Massachusetts. And that knowledge made my heart happy. Since I rarely have time to myself these days, this trip to D.C. was as much for my mind as it was for my body, but probably more for my mind.
I fell asleep easily and the next morning, just like it had been when I stayed in Petah Tikva, Rachel took care of breakfast. After leaving her apartment, she got me to the Metro station and I headed to the Capital Hilton near Dupont Circle. I caught up on reading before my room was ready and once it was, I headed upstairs to finishing prepping for the meeting with the Masa delegation. I was thankful to be rooming with Erika, a girl in my home group from the 2013 Masa Israel Leadership Summit (see my post “Masa Israel And My Second Chance”) who is nothing but a peach. (Back in March, Erika had been kind enough to allow the Masa alumni in Boston to gather at her apartment for a meeting.) We headed downstairs together to meet up with the rest of the Masa delegation. We discussed what Masa program we did in Israel, talked about what we missed the most and discussed how we would promote Masa over the weekend, via Masa swag and stories. As I looked around the room and listened to my comrades, I was reminded that no matter how different our paths, we all love Israel and that love for Israel, her people and the Jews worldwide is why my Masa comrades are the people I want to talk to when something is wrong. They are the people I can count on to back me up and the people I know will always be there for me, no matter what. Erika and I then headed out of the meeting with four others to grab Eritrean food before having to head back for the opening plenary. After those speeches, it was off for breakout sessions before Shabbat. I listened to European leaders talk about the anti-Semitism in their respective countries, something that makes my stomach curl. Needless to say, once Shabbat dinner started a little while after, I needed the wine to help me forget the ugly reality of the harassment that Jews have to face worldwide.
Even though I don’t “do” Shabbat, Masa has always made it special. Some of my favorite memories from when I lived in Israel were Shabbat dinners with my teacher or during the second of the three Mifgashim seminars (see my post “Falling Tears Post Meitar.”) This dinner was no exception. I got to play the nanny (or “Jewish Mother” as Lera, one of the girls in the group, called me) when she couldn’t eat the dessert in front of her and I gave her one of the strawberry fruit strips in my bag. As a nanny and babysitter, my mind is in those modes all the time. My London cohort constantly judged me for always being in an educator’s state of mind, since their lack of experience with children gave way to a lack of empathy for my job choices. But for Lera, a former member of ITF-Netanya (but not from my year), and my other Masa comrades, both the ones who have done Israel Teaching Fellows and the ones who haven’t, being an educator isn’t seen as bad. My Birthrighters felt the same. Tikkun olam can manifest itself in different ways.
*Credit: Jordana Sierra Skurka, June 5th, 2015*
A moment like this occurred during Shabbat—a slice of peace, a clear sign of joy and the strong feeling of family. Worries were silenced and doubt was taken over by the reminder that the time spent together with Masa is a gift. May it be yours, too.
Saturday had rolled around fast. After breakfast, I attended three breakout sessions—one where I learned how to sell my story, followed by a discussion about religious equality in Israel and finishing up with learning about diversity in Israel. There was one final breakout session that evening, but exhaustion prevailed and I took a nap. It’s hard for me to say how the evenings will look for a worn out educator. So, instead of feeling bad for missing the session, I dragged my poor body to bed. Israel taught me to live in the moment and to take care of myself. So I made headway with that. After making myself look decent, I went to grab a bite to eat at an Italian place with two people in my group, along with Osnat, Masa’s Director of Alumni and Community Engagement. After the meal, we headed back to the hotel to prep for Havdallah and the late-night party. I rarely dress up given my line of work, so I was pretty pleased that my hair, make-up and dress agreed with me.
Now, if I have learned anything from the various Jewish events I have gone to over the years, it is that there will be alcohol. And lots of it. Not only was there an open bar, but the drinks were mostly full of alcohol, as opposed to the cocktails I used to have when I lived London and all the drinks were weak and mostly consisted of juice. I don’t drink much these days because alcohol is fattening and I don’t have disposable income. But free alcohol when I rarely drink? I won’t turn that down. I sang the few words that I knew during Havdallah and danced around the room while “Hava Nagila” played. I had been chatting with one of the guys in my delegation, whom I will call Motek, but given how loud the music was, we decided to leave so we could actually hear each other. We chatted about our time in Israel, Israeli politics and our work. Alcohol makes me ramble, so I began the self-deprecation about my clients whose children I watch and how I don’t deserve them. To this day, I still don’t know why my clients are so nice to me and, even more bewildering, why they still took me back after being away in Israel for ten months. I don’t think I have ever been as worried as I was while I waited for Motek’s response. The words tumbled out of my mouth. But Motek reassured me that I did deserve my clients. He didn’t judge me for not having a “real job” like many people do. He seemed to understand me a bit better when I told him about my bad childhood and could see why I went to Israel in search of peace. My father always told me that going abroad meant running away from something. I didn’t run away to Israel; I chased after her. Being in Israel was like summiting Mount Everest—being in the one place where you can’t be touched.
I continued to ramble on to Motek about how ever since coming back from Israel, I have been changing. My soul, my wants and needs and the small voice in my head continue to be altered. Israel brought out a side of me I never knew existed. She made me want to be a better person, to live up to my full potential and to go after my dreams. I have been working with children for over ten years and while they stress me out sometimes, I am positive that I adore them. My urge to protect them from everything bad, physically and emotionally, is almost too much. Being abused as a child makes me want to make sure no other child goes through what I went through. But it also makes me hesitant to have them. I relayed this to Motek. I’m not really sure why, but it felt right. My heart, or maybe it was the alcohol talking, determined that I open up and share these thoughts with him. I don’t regret that.
Sunday morning came by much too fast. Erika and I had breakfast together before we went back to our room. She left D.C. early, so I finished up packing and waited for Motek to swing by so we could hang out. We skipped our breakout session, but did go to the final plenary. After that ended, we went to grab our bags and then had our final meeting with the rest of the Masa delegation. I felt sad knowing I had to leave, but at least I was able to sit together with my delegation as a family, that will hopefully continue to grow larger, and express our appreciation for Israel and each other. We did so with gratitude. Extreme gratitude.
I made my way to the airport via the Metro shortly after the meeting ended. As I sat at the airport and reflected on another successful time with my Masa comrades, I thought to myself how only a few years ago, spending ten months in Israel was not a direction I saw my life taking. After my amazing time on Birthright in 2012, I knew I wanted to get back to Israel, but living in Israel had never even crossed my mind; the only people I knew who went abroad after college were in the Peace Corps. I had no idea that there was an organization like Masa that would allow Jews to spend time in Israel like a local instead of a tourist. But I did it. My second cousin, David, was absolutely right in 2013 when he told me I needed to go back to Israel for my soul. When you know, you know. All that mattered was my love for Israel; her naysayers were just background noise. I took a giant leap of faith not just when I applied to Israel Teaching Fellows, but for the various seminars and meet-ups that Masa has held over the years I have been keeping up with them. I didn’t think there were people at Masa in the real world—the people who give you a second chance. That seemed unreal. Yet, as I began to apply for the wonderful events and trainings Masa put forth, both in Israel and after being back in America, I knew that having them guide me and support me was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Even though being in Israel caused my grandparents and father to support me even less than they already did before and forced me to see the anti-Jewish prejudices that I had no idea the people from my second high school and college possessed, I don’t regret going to Israel for a second. It was the right thing to do.
Israel and Masa are synonymous. Both have been there for me, every single time I need them, without ever expecting anything in return. I can never thank them enough for that. While the people in college and my London cohort abandoned me, the Israelis and my Masa comrades went out of their way to help me. This is who they are—loyal, caring and selfless. They have the biggest hearts of anyone I have ever met.
I love my Masa comrades because they are the opposite of the people I met in college (with a few exceptions) and my London cohort. When they see me in pain, physical or otherwise, they do everything in their power to help me. They cook for me. They get me dolled up. They give me a place to stay if and when I visit. They remember my stories. They dole out advice. They compliment me. They make me happy. They are humble, giving, kind, smart, courageous and about a thousand other things. I can say, with absolute confidence, that the majority of people at my college and my London cohort are none of those things.
The love that I possess for Masa knows no bounds. It’s extraordinary. I never in my life thought that I would ever be able to know such a feeling. But I have learned a lot and Masa has completely changed me. They made me into a better person and a better Jew.
The ACCESS Summit in D.C. was truly a weekend filled with beauty. A weekend filled with moments of missing Israel, but of course knowing she was, in fact, actually there amongst all of us. Israel’s gentle hand guided all of us through the days. Israel was present in the laughter that overflowed. She was present in the bright smiles that could be soaked in and glimpsed and cherished as fuel for the long days of speeches and lectures. And of course she was present in the sadness that often caught us off guard when we would reflect on Israel and how much we miss her. But, mostly, Israel was present in the love. We all embraced living during the weekend. Just as Israel would have wanted us to do.
*Credit: Masa Israel, June 5th, 2015*
My gratitude for Masa and all that they still do for me continues to keep me grounded and allows me to pause daily and remember that even on the days when everything seems to be falling apart around me, there are always things to be grateful for. Always.