Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A Personal and Communal Journey: Education, Columbia University, and Family

It was a chilly winter evening at the beginning of the Spring 2015 semester, after class, when I took the Columbia University Intercampus Shuttle from the Morningside Heights Campus, to the Columbia Medical Center in Washington Heights. At that point the driver of the 4:20 shuttle already knew me by name, as I was taking that shuttle on a weekly and sometimes bi-weekly basis. My maternal grandfather, may his memory be a blessing, was hospitalized for months at CUMC, up to his passing just two months after that. Over the 7 months that he was there, he wasn’t alone even for a single second, should it be a weekday or weekend, an ordinary day or a holiday, in rain or in snow. Between his 16 kids (kids and in-laws), and tens of grandkids and great-grandkids, the family took turns being with Zaidy. My mother was there about twice week, and every few weekends, and whenever I could I would take the 20-minute shuttle to the medical center to spend time with my beloved Mommy and Zaidy. After all, I was the only one in the family to live in Manhattan, and the only one in the entire extended family [1] to be part of the very university that became an integral part of our family life for months.
My (old) Columbia ID
That day I arrived at the Milstein Medical Building at the same time as my mom got out of the car that drove her from Brooklyn. The security at CUMC is adequately tight, and every time my mother came to visit, doesn’t matter how many times a week, she had to go through the security check-in. That meant walking up to the Visitors Counter, show a government ID, say whom she is visiting, and do a quick bag-check - she was no doubt used to it at that point. As always my mom was happy to see me; no matter what, her love - unconditional at the time - to the kid she saw as her oldest son was strong. We walked in through the revolving door, and out of instinct my mom approached the security desk. As she was pulling out her non-driver's license, [2] I pulled out my Columbia ID - which always gave me access to the medical center, no questions asked. Seeing my ID, the security guard asked me on my mom: “Is she with you?” and when I said yes, he just let us both go up without having to check in.
For my mom, this was the first time she faced firsthand what she knew for the last year, but never wanted to face it: her kid - myself, is part of the very same prestigious institution the family chose to take care of their crown - my grandfather. Mom’s first response, turning to the guard, was “Yup, my kid is just a showoff.” but as we entered the elevator to go up to the ICU on the sixth floor, my mother turns to me and said: “I see, you are doing something useful you’re your life.”
She said that in a tone of mourning rather than pride of her daughter's accomplishment. It is quite possible that she was the first mother to visit Columbia Medical Center because she believed in the effectiveness of the Columbia machine, and at the same time be upset, sad, and ashamed that her kid is part of that very same institution.
          I was only a young teenager when my cousin, [3] the now award winning actor, Luzer Twersky, left the Hasidic community. Luzer was the first person in my entire extended family [4] to commit one of the harshest sins possible in my family; going Off the derech - leaving the community. At the time our family went out of its way to demonize him and degrade him. I remember being told the worst things possible about him. From claims that he is mentally ill to claims that he is a criminal. The reasons why he left ranged from being insane to just a sinner who likes sex. We were told that it is certain he will end up a drug addict, in prison, or dead. Compassion to a family member that is going through a hard transition? none at all. At that point I pretty much believed it, while I was secretly watching his path hoping that maybe one day I will be able to follow in his footsteps. The possibility that in a few years he will have earned a few film awards, and have a fairly successful acting career, just didn’t cross my mind.
          Luzer wasn’t the only one that was demonized in that way. Every time someone left, the families and the whole community establishment rushed to explain it in any way possible - besides the possibility that they were looking for a better life outside the confines of one of America’s most isolated communities. We were told that everyone who leaves ends up either mentally ill, a criminal, or dead. As with Luzer, the community would get creative in creating a story of why they left, always negative, and usually along the lines of mental illness or desire to be sinful and lustful. Without question, up to about ten years ago, without any support groups or social media, that was what most of us believed. In addition, they were sadly right more times than not. Without a solid education or baseline knowledge of how to live as a civilized human being in the outside world, topped with family rejection leading to financial breakdown, very few people were actually successful after leaving. I don’t think anyone took statistics of these leaving prior to 2003, but from what we know, a lot of them sadly ended up in bad places physically, mentally, and/or emotionally.
          In 2012, when I was beginning my own journey out of the community, everyone in my life rallied around to convince me of my upcoming colossal failure. A lot of people were called in - so to speak - to ‘save’ my soul, and try to prevent me from moving forward. From my father who has a lot of experience working with “teens at risk,” [5] my paternal grandfather with whom I had a very personal relationship as my spiritual mentor, to my great-aunt, Rebbetzin Feige Twerski, a world renown kiruv speaker. The underlying message I got from all of them was that one thing is clear: there is simply no way I will ever succeed in life outside of the community. However, the biggest reason why that didn’t work in 2012 as well as it worked with others in 1992, was that I have seen success stories. Thanks to organizations such as Footsteps and Hillel, social media such as the Facebook group Off the Derech, and online projects such as It Gets Besser, I knew that success is possible. To my family and community however, my success, and the success of my fellow journeyers leaving the community, was seen as a threat of itself.
          From the first moment I started planning to leave the enclave I grew up in, I knew that one of the most important steps towards success would be education. Here once again everyone was enlisted to convince me that I will never succeed in academia. As a matter of opinion, I believe that they knew that education is actually the path to success, and wanted to do everything possible to ensure that doesn’t happen. I clearly remember a moment when I was studying for my GED in my father’s study at home, [6] and he came in and said, “I know you, and I can promise you, you will never succeed in college.”  In the end, as a direct result of these messages I started pushing myself to prove them wrong, and to work hard to get somewhere in life. I will admit that part of the reason I applied to NYU and Columbia was because even my parents recognized that these are top schools. Knowing that pushed me - at least a bit - to work hard on my SAT's, admissions essay, and so on.
My Columbia acceptance lette
I will never forget the look of shock, dismal, and disappointment on my father's face when I showed him my Columbia acceptance letter. Throughout the next year - while they were still talking to me - they constantly hated it when I mentioned being at Columbia, studying with leading professors, and later on making political connections. They didn't know how to deal with it, and even more how to convince the rest of my family that I am NOT successful.
To that extent, I have to admit, my mother saying “I see, you are doing something useful with your life,” while sincere, was a challenge not just to herself, but to the entire community’s basic belief system. However, I am proud to say, and to be just one of the living examples, that everything is possible. No matter what our communities and families are tell us, we can be successful. Nothing is off limits, not even the Ivy League, or the third best school in the United States of America.

This post was inspired by an inquiry by my dear friend Shulem Deen, regarding what we (the OTD community) were told growing up about what happens to these who leave.

[1] For context, just my grandfather’s father’s kids, grandkids, great-grandkids, and great-great-grandkids, make up about a hundreds of college age people. I almost certain that I am the first of them to go to college.
[2] Non-driver’s license is the most commonly used form of ID in communities were driving for women (and sometimes even man as is the case with my family) is considered taboo, and pretty much unacceptable.
[3] Luzer is my second cousin on my father’s side, and later first cousin through my ex wife. Just like in royal families, the royal Hasidic families – namely descendants of Hasidic rabbis, marry each other all the time, so there is a lot overlap in family trees. Even in my own marriage, my great-grandmother, and my ex’s grandmother were first cousins.
[4] The family of my paternal great-great-grandfather, Rabbi Eluzer Twersky - Luzer’s namesake.
[5] Teens at risk didn’t usually refer to drugs, or at risk of joining the neighborhood gang. Usually it meant boys that have smartphones god forbid, talk the girls, or just don’t want to study 10 hours a day at religious schhol.
[6] As depicted in this video: https://youtu.be/xnoT1Y-sHXI?t=40s, produced by the It Gets Besser Project.