I was in DSW with a friend when I spotted a pair of brown lace-up “dressy” sneakers on sale. I was 25 and about to leave for my second summer working at URJ Camp Harlam. At the time, I wanted to work in Jewish informal education, so Jewish summer camp seemed like a good place to make connections. That was as much of my life as I’d figured out. But as my wise mom always reminds me – life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.
I bought the shoes having no idea where I would actually end up wearing them after the summer was over. Would I work for a synagogue? Another Jewish nonprofit? Somewhere else entirely? They seemed like comfortable, practical shoes that I could wear just about anywhere. Where I ended up wearing them, however, turned out to be so much better than I could have ever imagined.
Here’s what you should know about me at 25: four years before that, at 21, I had elective back surgery that hadn’t exactly gone “according to plan.” There was a second, very much unplanned and unexpected surgery, and the three-month recovery I was initially promised turned into multiple agonizing years. Consequently, I missed my senior year of college.
My peers went on to graduate with their degrees and set about starting their careers. At 25, I was doing much better physically, but mentally and emotionally I was still struggling to get unstuck. I didn’t know where I wanted to go next, how to get there, who I wanted to be … okay, so maybe I wasn’t so different from my peers. At the time, though, I felt horribly inadequate and very far behind the plans I’d had for my life.
It’s hard to put into words what finding myself meant at the time. Major surgery is never easy, but I was completely unprepared for something to go wrong, for the years recovery would take, for the senior year of college I would never get back. I couldn’t make peace for those difficult years with the feeling that there were two of me: the “me” who was still in control and had been able to live the life I’d intended back at college with my friends, classes, clubs, and so on, and the “other me” – in a tailspin, in pain, stuck at home, shut out of it all.
I went to work at Camp Harlam in 2007 because it seemed like the place I needed to be just then. Set in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains with its own small lake, Camp Harlam is a special place tucked away from the world. Working on a staff with friends from high school as well as my 20s, it was like going back in time a bit, a way to pause, reflect and begin looking forward.
Celebrating Shabbat at Camp Harlam
Another special part of working at Harlam those summers was the amazing international staff that comes each year, among them some Israelis whom I’d gotten to know well last year. One night toward the end of the summer, staying up at 2 a.m. to hang out with my Israeli friends, I had the completely crazy idea that would redefine my life. What if I moved to Israel for a year?
I have relatives in Israel whom I visited when I was 15, and I’d gone on a Birthright Israel trip just a couple years before, when I was 23. During that trip, I had a ring made that said refuah shlema (a complete healing of body and spirit) that I’ve worn on my middle finger every day since, and I also promised myself I’d go back and actually live there for an extended period of time. That summer I wasn’t dating anyone, I had no lease or mortgage, and all of my belongings were at my parents’ house. (Later, I would jokingly add that “I had no children… that I knew of.”) It seemed like the perfect time to go.
I decided to sleep on the idea. I wasn’t sure if it was just the result of delirium caused by sleep deprivation. I figured that if I still thought it was a good idea in the morning, I would pursue it further. Before I went to bed, I texted a friend, “I think I might move to Israel in the fall!” Her response was logical: “What will you do there?” Almost instantly, I replied, “Study. Work. Find myself.”
I woke up the next morning – and spoiler alert – it still seemed like a good idea. I came home in early September and began to research programs and scholarships.
In Eilat, Israel
My Israeli friends were very enthusiastic about this plan, naturally, but my grandparents, not so much. My grandmother famously thought I was about to tell her I was pregnant – single, unmarried me with no job and no apartment. When I told her no, I was moving to Israel for a year instead, she mumbled under her breath disappointedly, “Oh, a baby would have been better.”
She eventually came around, and a few whirlwind weeks later, on October 15th, 2007, I landed in Tel Aviv to begin my WUJS Arad – Peace & Social Justice Program internship.
I was able to participate in several amazing social justice projects that year, but one of the most rewarding was volunteering with Holocaust survivors at Cafe Europa. Each week, several participants on various year-long programs joined with local high school students to make and serve tea sandwiches, tea and coffee for the seniors as part of an afternoon of line dancing and socializing.
One day, I asked one of the women how it is that she was so happy while others stayed quite understandably stuck in the agony of their past. She shared with me what many survivors know: “If you let them take your happiness from you in the present as well as the past, they win twice.” I decided to reclaim my own happiness from then on.
A few months into my time in Israel, I looked down and noticed my brown shoes walking down Dizengoff Street and along the many roads of Tel Aviv. I had found myself living in one of my favorite cities by the Mediterranean Sea where the sunshine and the water helped me heal the emotional scars that physical therapy had never quite managed to soothe.
Without entirely realizing exactly what I was doing at the time, I had done it – I had taken control of my destiny. Looking back, a post from my Israel blog in 2008 says it best:
“From the sunny ride into Tel Aviv the day we moved here, I have been in love and exuberantly joyful in a way I haven't felt in a long time. I remember looking out the window and thinking (totally amazed) ‘I did this! I made this happen! I made my own dream come true!’ A momentous feeling to be sure! Our lives take so many unexpected twists and turns, it's fantastic to be able to change your own life. Who knew? Then I thought, I should remember to dream big. Who knows what else I can dream up and make happen!
My WUJS program made way for a nonprofit placement through AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps in Washington, D.C. when I returned to the States, which led me on the path to where I am today, six plus years in D.C. working in the nonprofit field. It’s not the path I had planned for myself, but it’s absolutely perfect for me. I’m in the best possible place, working on issues I care deeply about.
My family and friends who knew me when I left for Israel can tell you I came back a different person. I came back happier and with an inner peace and self-assurance that life would work out as it was meant to – plans or no plans. This had not been my outlook in October 2007. I came back healed and ready for whatever came next. And yes, those shoes carried me every step of the journey, and I still have them today!
Jane Yamaykin lives in Takoma Park, Maryland and is passionate about Judaism, social justice, and food. She has worked for nonprofit organizations for nearly 10 years and stays actively involved in community organizing and direct-service volunteer opportunities. She loves to relax by cooking with farmers market finds and inviting friends over to share the meal.
To read more posts in the "In With the New" blog series, click here.