I turned 36 two weeks after I came to work at JUF, and it seemed auspicious that I was reaching my "double chai" birthday at that moment in time.
I'd never worked for a Jewish organization, or even with very many Jewish colleagues, and it felt like coming home.
During my first months and years at JUF, I experienced many intensely meaningful Jewish moments, moments which I vowed I would never take for granted-and which I now, of course, take for granted.
For starters, I was accustomed to having to be assertive to take off the High Holidays. Now I didn't even need to use my vacation days to do so. I couldn't believe my luck.
The first time I heard my co-workers call "Shabbat Shalom" to one another as they were leaving for the weekend, my eyes filled with tears.
I was delighted (and dumbfounded) to find that darn near every meeting seemed to involve food. When I went to lunch with a new colleague and she asked for one dessert and two forks, I knew we would be fast friends.
People invited one another to their simchas-and loved seeing pictures of each other's kids, grandkids and dogs. Staff and lay leaders also stood by one another in times of sickness and sorrow. I will never forget how my JUF community filled the congregation for my father's funeral.
I loved the practice of slipping a few dollars for tzedakah to a colleague before he went on a trip to Israel. The gesture was purported to protect the traveler from harm, since he was now en route to perform a mitzvah.
The Yiddish phrases which seemed so foreign to me, growing up in a yekke household, seduced me with their eloquence. You should have seen my face the first time someone said they could see I was a balabusta and I struggled to discern the meaning.
Everyone had a sense of humor.
Then I blinked, and the years flew by. This month, I mark my 18th anniversary at JUF, and celebrate my "triple chai" birthday. One-third of my life has been spent at JUF.
It seems impossible. Weren't we just celebrating Israel's 50th Jubilee and the Federation's Centennial? Didn't we just launch the JUF Uptown Café, TOV Volunteer Network and Jewish Women's Foundation?
Those were wonderful times.
There also were times that were bittersweet. The attacks of Sept. 11 were awful, but what a balm it was to be with people who were like family as the news unfolded. When natural disasters struck, at home and abroad, it felt good to help serve as a conduit for our Chicago Jewish community's generosity, rather than just standing by helplessly.
And then there were times that were simply awful: the terror attacks, the hate crimes, the wars. Sometimes, when I lie awake at night, images of all the tragedies flash before my eyes.
But most of the time I smile, thinking of some of the absolutely extraordinary people with whom I have had the privilege to work and to serve our community.
There's no telling what will happen in the next 18 years. In the meantime, may we all go from strength to strength.