(What I learned at Harvard part 1)
Lesson 2 – The National; How Close and How Far We Drift
As I was rushing to beet the 6pm parking “price hike”, I walked by a small farmers market that was set up in Charles Square. I decided to stop for a short minute or two to enjoy the site of the various stands, merchants and shoppers. Before I had a chance to approach, though, I was surprised by someone running directly at me from 10 feet away. In order to understand the scene and the story it is necessary to have a visual picture of her. She had a young and pretty face, was wearing blue jean pants, a red tank-top, had a long (very) blond ponytail and a string of beads around her head, “hippy style”. As I began moving out of the way she gave a final leap ending up no more than 3 feet in front of me, she looked right at me and said “I saw you were Orthodox so I need to ask you – ‘do you think the way I’m dressed is a Chilul Hashem‘”?
I was in complete shock. She might have been one of the last people in that square I would guess was Jewish, let alone use the phrase ‘Chilul Hashem’ (desecration of God’s name)!
As I was trying to figure out what was going on and what to say, she said “I’m Jewish too. Do you think the way I’m dressed is a Chilul Hashem?”
I responded: “It is not for me to judge and decide. That is between you and Hashem” to which she responded “that’s a great answer. Thank you”.
She carried on to share the following information:
Her name was Yael; she was 16 and grew up in a Modern Orthodox family. She attended a Modern Orthodox day school but has been in the public school system since 8th grade “because we couldn’t afford it; the school was very nice and tried to help but it didn’t work out”. Upon her parents divorce and her father’s remarriage she drifted away from an observant lifestyle. Her step mother “forces me to eat McDonald’s” and “I go to Shul on Shabbat sometimes, but usually I’m too lazy”.
The entire scene felt surreal; here I was, in a farmers market in Cambridge listening to a 16 year old Jewish teen I had just met share with me her life story and religious crisis.
I inquired about any support systems she could lean on – friends from her old school, a community rabbi, or other family. She wasn’t responsive to my questions and carried on with more, similar, details.
I tried to get her full name (so I could follow up through the community or the Jewish schools in her area, where I had solid contacts) but all she gave me was her middle name – Chana.
It was clear that this was my only chance with her. What was I supposed to say? what could I say? what did she need me to say?
I pointed out that, as evident by the conversation we were having, she cared deeply about being Jewish and religious. I encouraged her about those things that she did observe saying that they were invaluable and stood independent from all the things she was not observing. I told her to focus on those things and see the rest as goals to work towards when she felt she could. I encouraged her to hang out with her old friends from day school. I said a few other things as well.
She thanked me again, turned around and walked away.
Did I say the right things? Will they help her in any way? Could I have steered her better towards help? Could I have said more? Will she find her way back to herself and to Judaism? I don’t know and doubt I ever will. It continues to nag at me several weeks later and I think it will continue to nag at me for many years to come.
Lesson 3 – The Personal; Me and My Chicken Soup (Coming Soon)