(July 8, 2015 / JNS)
I had looked forward to my year in seminary with great anticipation because I knew that living and learning in Israel would open up a whole new world to me. In fact, everyone I encountered informed me that my “gap year” would consist of one life-altering experience after another and that I needed to make the most of every opportunity that came my way.
But I was a little anxious about my ability to truly maximize the year. After all, I had only a few short months to achieve so many important things. In addition to increasing my Torah knowledge and enhancing my spirituality, I wanted to volunteer, to give of myself, and to make an impact on others. Even though an incredible opportunity to volunteer with special-needs children fell into my lap, I wasn’t sure if I could juggle everything.
To my great surprise, however, the volunteering opportunity was actually the best thing that could have happened to my year. It reframed and added structure to my seminary experience, and opened my eyes to the depth and beauty of life.
So what was this transformative volunteering program?
While serving as a counselor last summer at Camp Migdal, a camp for children and teenagers with special needs, I was approached by the assistant director, Perri Binet, with a request. During her gap year many years earlier, Perri had started a unique volunteering initiative with ALEH, Israel’s largest network of facilities for children with severe physical and cognitive disabilities, whereby seminary students would visit ALEH’s Jerusalem facility every night to say the Shema prayer with the kids and put them to bed (like all other Jewish children). Perri was hoping that I would take over the “Sweet Dreams” program for the year.
At first, I didn’t know what to say. I was concerned about how I could possibly fit this into my already packed schedule, and the added responsibility made me anxious. But the program touched my heart, and I happily agreed.
Thanks to my friends in different schools around Jerusalem, it didn’t take too long to complete the weekly roster. Within just a few days, we solidified the rotation and began visiting the kids. Every night, the designated group of girls would spend 45 minutes going from room to room singing Shema and other lullabies and dispensing countless hugs and kisses.
I had slotted myself in for Thursday nights, and it quickly became the highlight of my week. Prior to my first visit to ALEH in Jerusalem, I wondered how responsive the children would be. As my relationships with the children grew from week to week, I reveled in their abilities to enjoy our time together—smiling, clapping, and giggling from the moment we arrived until the moment they faded off to sleep.
Though our weekly visits were short, my interactions with the ALEH kids and staff impacted me tremendously. It was amazing to be surrounded by such warmth, to realize that every person who entered ALEH Jerusalem would be praised and appreciated both as individuals and for the great value that they added to the group, even if the value added was seemingly unconventional. It was inspiring to see that every accomplishment, no matter how small, would be celebrated as a major milestone.
It was this stunning new system for evaluating the world that transformed my year and, ultimately, my life. By design, there is a sense of “selfishness” that is built into the seminary experience. The year is all about the individual: her goals, her growth, and how much she hopes to gain from every experience. Thankfully, my time at ALEH kept me grounded, reminding me that while my personal growth was important, it would be flawed and incomplete if it wasn’t rooted in selflessness and receiving by way of giving as much of oneself as possible.
I also reflect on how at the beginning of the year, I was so overwhelmed by my desire to achieve “everything” that I found myself paralyzed, with no idea of how or where to begin. But as I spent more and more time at ALEH, I learned that in order to achieve my goals, I would first need to redefine success and celebrate every step of my journey toward that goal—even the small ones—as a major victory.
All too often, it is the fear of failure that prevents us from accomplishing our goals. Yet if we only realized the value of a single action or experience, we would likely achieve a great deal more than we could ever imagine. Most of the time, all that stands between our greatest successes and our most dismal failures is the bravery to take (and celebrate) one step at a time.
In my case, a step toward the unknown allowed me to impact the lives of so many beautiful Jewish children and, in turn, provided me with the tools to not only maximize my year, but to elevate my outlook on life. A cause for celebration, indeed.
Chana Devorah Levine is a Baltimore, Md., native and an alumnus of the Yeshiva of Greater Washington. She is returning from a year of study at the BJJ Seminary in Jerusalem.