Studying text is one way to gather knowledge and inspiration as we seek to live meaningful lives and work to improve the quality of life for all people of our community. We usually study ancient texts, but sometimes more modern writing is just as powerful. Such is the case with a letter written by a young man named Andrew Pochter, which I found while preparing for an upcoming social justice text study.
A few weeks ago, Pochter, a role model for those who are dedicated to making the world a better place, died after being stabbed at a protest in Egypt. At his funeral, his sister, Emily, read a letter that Andrew had written to a camper of his. Andrew Pochter had been a counselor for a program called Camp Opportunity, a camp for at-risk children between the ages of six and 12. While Andrew was not a scholar who lived centuries ago, his letter is filled with precious thoughts and reflections that will certainly live on in the hearts of all who are fortunate to read it. May it inspire many, for generations to come.
Transcription of the letter follows:
Hello how are you man? I can’t believe it has been a year since camp. I am sure you are wiser, taller arid smarter since I saw you last. Please accept my apologies that I will not be there for the graduation ceremony. Right now I am in Alexandria, Egypt teaching English to young students who are around your age. They all speak Arabic so learning English as a second language is quite difficult. But they are all really intelligent, just like you! You would really like the Arabic language, you should check it out!
Egypt is hazardous right now because the country is feeling the consequences of a enormous political revolution. I lose electricity and water all of the time but that’s okay because Ihave many Egyptian friends to help take care of me. When I am in trouble, they take care of me and when they are in trouble, I always take care of them. Good friends do not come easily but as a rule, I always appreciate the good deeds people do for me even if I don’t know them well. What is most important is that I am trying to do my best for others. I want to surround myself with good people!
I did not come up with this personal philosophy on my own. Without thoughtful and caring people like you, I would probably be a mean and grumpy person. Your kind heart and genuine character serve as a model for me. I hope that you will never stop your curiosity for the beautiful things in life. Go on hikes in forests, canyons and mountains, go fishing, research wildlife, and get out of city Life if you can. Surround yourself with good friends who care about your future. Fall in love with someone. Get your heart broken. And then move on and fall in love again. Breathe life every day like it is your first. Find something that you love to do and never stop doing that thing unless you find something else you love more.
Don’t blame others for their mistakes. It makes you weak. You are a strong man who does not need to be weighted down by people who only complain and say negative things. Speak with conviction and believe in yourself because your personal confidence is just as important as your education.
I wish I could be there to say my congratulations but I know that it wouldn’t change much. You have earned it. Hopefully one day you will hang up this diploma next your high school and college diplomas as well.
Try not to forget me. If you ever need anything, just email:
Your Friend, Andrew Pochter”
I invite you to consider: how might you use this letter in a text study session with the youth in your community?
May Andrew’s memory be a blessing.
I was moved by a story I heard on NPR last week. Krista Tippet, host of NPR’s show “On Being,” spoke with Joy Ladin, Professor of English at Stern College of Yeshiva University, is the author of Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, and has also published five books of poetry.
Joy shared her story candidly, in the interview and an accompanying photo essay. She also shared insights such as the following question posed to her, and the life-altering answer (and subsequent questions) that followed:
‘“Did anyone ever teach you to be true to yourself?’ a therapist once asked me. I had come to her in the midst of what I call my gender crisis — the physical, mental, and emotional breakdown I experienced after 40-plus years of living as the male I knew I wasn’t. I had just told her about my shame about hiding for decades my lifelong sense that I was female. Having failed to keep faith with my own gender identity, how could I now break my covenant with my wife, my children, and all who knew me as a man?”
This interview aired only a week or so before the ISJL’s Education Conference. At the conference this year, we had a keynote session for all participants, with five brave panelists willing to lead the conversation about privilege, and how privilege manifests itself in life generally and in Jewish communal life in particular. We discussed privilege and assumptions in terms of poverty, physical ability, mental illness, sexual identity, race – the wide range of ways in which some are granted privilege in our society while others are stigmatized or overlooked.
There are many privileges associated with having a gender identity that matches the gender assigned to us by society at birth. Many of us have the privilege of going about our daily lives without having to hide our gender identity from the people who are closest to us. For those of us who have been given this privilege, it is hard to imagine what it must be like to live a life in which we own one gender identity but seek to live the life of another.
Joy was afraid to reveal her true self to her students – students at Yeshiva University, a community primarily comprised of religious Jews. To her surprise, when she finally did tell them that she identified a woman and wanted to live as such, some of her students were most upset not by this revelation but by the fact up until that moment, she had been deceiving them. By living as a man, she had betrayed their trust. It is uplifting to know that it was of utmost importance to Joy’s students that Joy live as Joy; it is sad to imagine that Joy may have been tormented by the possibility that her students would reject her. The students’ true response, which surprised Joy with its level of acceptance, demonstrates that it is not sufficient to be accepting and welcoming, quietly. If people don’t know that we are understanding people, people will not have an easy time being who they are around us. If Joy knew that the culture around her was more accepting, perhaps she would have revealed her true self earlier and with less fear.
One question that emerges after listening to this interview is: How can Jewish institutions and congregations communicate a genuine interest in celebrating the diversity of the Jewish people? How can we encourage people—ourselves and people who fear coming out of hiding–to be as Joy says our “truest selves”? How can we support one another as we go about our “lifelong work of being at home in ourselves?”
We started some great conversation on this topic at the education conference, and we would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
You’d think that Michaelson’s voice would be one of many, as he is speaking out against systems of fear, oppression and injustice in our Jewish backyard. He calls attention to a reality that we must all face and address head-on: corruption masquerading as “religious Judaism.”
This is an issue of social justice, and it is my belief that any and every Jewish group that engages in social justice work has a duty to investigate and learn about injustices that exist in our own community. But we’re not. Not as much as we should be.
Here is one excerpt from Michaelson’s piece:
Imagine you’re an 18-year-old woman in a Hasidic enclave. You’re married, with two or three kids already, and you’ve been told that “outside” everyone is evil, depraved and miserable. You barely read English. And you know that when your cousin left, she was destitute, disowned and disgraced. There is no one to help you if you leave. You’re on your own. So of course you stay. We are abandoning thousands of our fellow Jews to this hierarchy of power and abuse.
I encourage you to read the rest of the article, and make a commitment to fight the good fight. As someone who has experienced the challenges of leaving the ultra-orthodox world, this is an issue I care about deeply.
I have seen this struggle firsthand. Additionally, as the founder and former Executive Director of the nonprofit organization Footsteps, I met many brave men and women who, like the hypothetical Haredi woman Jay describes, were prepared to start anew as native-born immigrants in a foreign world.
Footsteps remains the only organization in North America that helps people seeking to leave the ultra-orthodox community. Though I am no longer on the staff of Footsteps, and have been pursuing community engagement efforts in Mississippi for the past few years with the ISJL, this mission remains important to me. I urge you to learn more, and to support both the work of Footsteps and those individuals who choose to leave their communities.
Do not stand idly by.
To learn more about Footsteps, visit www.footstepsorg.org