Posted by mwallach on July 14, 2011 in New To You |

Dear That’s Life,
The momentary inability to find the right words with which to express myself is an unnerving feeling for someone like me. Having already invoked my former graduate school advisor’s sage advice to “type, then delete,” I wonder how many times I can stop and start the same piece. To date, this is my seventh attempt. I have been trying to write this for five days, this “moment” lasting way too long.

With no specific expectations for ChampionsGate, Yeshiva University’s Community Leadership Conference held last weekend in Orlando, Florida, it is even more shocking that I continue to struggle for the words to make it right. Not that I thought the weekend would be disappointing – not at all. I knew it was going to be enjoyable. Never did I imagine, however, I would ever be so inspired or so moved, that I would actually be brought to tears.

As a former NCSYer and Morasha kid, I crave opportunities to sing aloud with others, usually at seminal moments like shalosh seudos, while Shabbos ebbs away. Some may find it hokey, as the deliberate intention is to stir feelings, allowing emotions to rise up from an individual through song and prayer. Yet there is a reason we are encouraged to daven (pray) with a minyan and to be part of a congregation, as the power of community plays a pivotal role in Judaism. We were not meant to stand alone as individuals, but rather, to be part of a kehillah (congregation). And while this large group had gathered in Orlando from different points around the world, most of whom had never met each other, none of us left the way we had arrived.

I had already made note on Friday night as we sang “Lecha Dodi” that the woman next to me wore opaque stockings, while my legs remained bare as did those of the woman next to me. The woman across had a doily on her head, the woman next to her wore a sheitel (wig) and I wore a hat. The beauty of these observations is that they were irrelevant, and that’s what I had noticed. No one cared. A level of acceptance had been reached between all of us, an understanding that we were all there for the same reason, our individual backgrounds notwithstanding. We were not there for ourselves – we were there for us, and an “us” we were already becoming.

We sat in the round during the shabbos oneg that preceded maariv, having just finished our umpteenth meal for the weekend, and followed the lead of Chazzan Shimon Craimer. His powerful voice had already inspired many of us over shabbos. I looked around the group and while I may have been sitting with friends, my best friend sitting immediately to my left, I did not know most of the others in the crowd. A sea of voices and faces had gathered, attendance for the weekend topping 400 people. I am not sure how many actually joined in, although it seemed as if everyone was there, singing as one. Transported back to our days as campers or as students at seminars, the music carried us away and I found myself tearing. President Joel stood in the middle of the circle, taking off his President’s costume as it were, and made it clear he was speaking to us at that moment just as “Richard,” not anyone else. Each time he talks about his wife, Esther, no matter what the setting, something inside me stirs. She sat amongst us, as did three of their children. He spoke about his family and the tears steadily flowed from my eyes.

Part of something larger than myself, the room swelled as the singing continued. Solidifying us as our own community, we were charged with the responsibility of going back to our neighborhoods, large and small, to inspire others and put into motion what we had been taught. Rejuvenated by the weekend and infused with spirituality, we were all up to the task. The question was not, “What are we going to do when we get back?” but rather, “When can we get started?” It was clear from the weekend that we were ready. We had the resources of Yeshiva University and its staff behind us, and it was time to go.

There are many hackneyed sayings, overplayed lyrics and poems inside a Hallmark card reflecting the loss people feel when they did not what they were missing until it was all gone. I, on the other hand, had a slightly different epiphany: I did not know I needed all of this until the weekend was over. A personal awakening and renewed commitment to community are what I took with me from Orlando. It could have been the voices singing in unison, or Rabbi Binny Friedman’s sage advice during a shiur or the wildly entertaining words of Rabbi Meir Soloveichik shabbos morning. Maybe it was the warm “Shabbat Shalom” I received from a woman I had sat next to during a previous session, who I had never known before, but now welcomed me to sit next to her. Perhaps it was the moment I realized I did not want to take a nap Shabbos afternoon, despite being there without my children. With so many people to talk to and sessions to hear, I did not want to miss a thing. In fact, I was not even tired regardless of the little sleep I averaged. Generally when I go with little sleep, I comment that I’m running on empty. This time, however, despite the late nights and early mornings of last weekend, I always seemed to be running on full.

If I had been told that I would leave ChampionsGate with a new appreciation for my alma mater (SCW ’96), a personal empowerment and profound sense of commitment, I would not have believed it – because I did not know it had been missing. I did not know I needed this, but I did. And it is with that energy that I will begin again.

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