Over the past three years, I have had the great privilege of attending Yeshiva University in New York City. It has been one of the most meaningful experiences of my life thus far, and I feel truly blessed to have had the opportunities, disappointments and achievements that these three years have offered me. More importantly, the experience has taught me a tremendous amount about myself and the world around me. Some of these teachings are obvious, but seen through the lens of an “outsider” may shed light on the beauty and uniqueness of the New York Jewish community. Although the following is anecdotal, I hope it paints an insightful picture of gratitude for a period of my life that I will always look back on with joy.
During my time at YU, I learnt to become very independent. I lived by myself in the city last summer, right in the middle of COVD, and have learnt to navigate the subway well enough that other out-of-towners often come and ask me for directions. (It’s laughable, really!) That said, I have also learnt how dependent I am on other people’s Chesed. I have been the beneficiary of the most phenomenal, unspeakable Chesed during my time at YU, and I would hardly have been able to survive had it not been for the hundreds of Shabbas meals, free car rides, and empty beds that members of our community so benevolently provided for me. When YU shut down last February, I moved into my friend’s home in Passaic, and was treated by his family for 10 weeks as a loved and valued son. Even once I left Passaic, dozens of people in the Jewish community took me in for Shabbas, long before there were any vaccines. We are so lucky to live in a community where Chesed is such a priority. When I tell my friends back home how graciously and lovingly I have been treated by people I have known for mere months, they are shocked. And yet, in a certain way, some of us have come to see this level of הכנסת אורחים as normal. But it is not normal. There is nothing normal about opening our homes to random people from our son’s or daughter’s university, especially not during a global pandemic. We should know how unique it is, and we should be proud of ourselves for our continuous communal devotion to it.
At YU, I have learnt the importance of hard work, and the fact that in any academic field, Torah-related or otherwise, hard work is not a switch that can be flipped at will. If you have a strong morning Seder in the Beis Midrash, your afternoon classes are generally productive. If you are late, careless and flippant in the morning, your afternoon classes often pay the price. I have found that the intense working culture in New York might actually enhance religious Jews’s ability to serve Hashem with passion and fervour. If I were to learn Gemara in South Africa at 10pm on a weeknight, I would be one of the last people learning on the continent. In New York, if you are a working husband and father, you are only free and available to learn Torah at 10pm!! We should realize how fortunate we are to be surrounded by a culture that promotes and encourages hard work, little sleep, and – in its truest sense – עמילות.
I have learnt the importance of friends. Life is often so busy that friends naturally drop down our priority lists. But friends are invaluable – especially when we’re young. As a mentor of mine likes to point out, השפעת הסביבה, the influence of one’s friends, has more of an impact on a person than his professors, parents or Rabbis. A true friend keeps tabs on you and pushes you towards success when no one else does – not because other people don’t care, but because very few other people are even aware enough of your circumstances or struggles to provide you with the encouragement or rebuke that you need. Yet, that being said, my time in New York has taught me that nobody will ever fully understand me. No one will fully grasp all my nuances, fears, ambitions or innermost thoughts. When all is said and done, my friends lead different lives than I do.
Their backgrounds, exposures, experiences and expectations define each of them in very unique ways. That realization has forced me to come to terms with myself, and to be comfortable with who I am. To accept our own faults while recognizing that we need improvement in various areas is not only a crucial psychological and emotional tool, but it is also – (Emphasis on the “anecdotal” here – I am aware that there may be world-renowned psychologists reading this) – the mentality most conducive to positive and sustainable change. We can beat ourselves up every time we “could have done better”, but in the long-term, that will just lead to more disappointment. The same way we are taught to be forgiving with others, we should also be forgiving with ourselves – especially at the moment, when stress levels have never been higher.
Lastly, In New York, I have learnt that the American Jewish community has a special role to play when it comes to Israel advocacy. A few weeks ago, there was a pro-Palestinian rally in the Jewish area of Johannesburg. On the way to the rally, thousands of Palestinian supporters drove by my house, hooting and blasting loud music from their cars. My father later told me that the noises stopped HALF AN HOUR after they began, meaning that for 30 minutes, car after car of Palestinian supporter drove freely and proudly, waving flags and blaring Arabic music, right next to my home. Had I been inside, I would have been petrified. There are 50,000 Jews in South Africa. There are several million muslims. That is not to say that every Jew supports Israel and every Muslim supports Palestine, but you get the point. There are likely more people who do not like Israel than those who do. What the American Jewish community has – especially in New York – and what no other community in Chutz LaAretz has – is the numbers and the means to protect diaspora Jewry en-masse.
There is a tremendous opportunity that comes with that blessing, and the community has answered the call in the form of organizations like AIPAC and the ADL. But there is also a responsibility on an individual level. In a very real sense, American Jews often speak for diaspora Jewry at large. Your influence in Congress matters. Your votes and donations can help sway the future of the middle-east. Our votes and donations – those of the South African, British, and Australian Jewish communities, and similarly those of the South American communities – cannot, or can do so much less effectively. In an indirect but tangible sense, our security and prosperity depends on you, and, based on the mantra במקום שאין איש, Israel-advocacy presents a special opportunity for American Jews to answer the call of history.
I am so blessed to have spent these three years in New York, and I am so grateful to the community for teaching me lessons that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. May you continue to be blessed with prosperity, opportunity, influence and a love for your fellow Jew.