Millennial Mishegas

Steven Chaitman

Steven Chaitman shares what's on his Millennial mind and brings some re-Jew-venating perspective to contemporary issues in our rapidly evolving world.

The Kvetching Intellectual

Snowing kindness

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If there were more blizzards, I think people would be a lot nicer to each other.

Like most Chicagoans, Sunday’s “Super Bowl Blizzard” – the fifth largest Chicago snowstorm on record –left me snowed in Monday. While working from home, I took a shoveling break in the morning to clear a path from my front door, and later in the afternoon embarked to dig out my car parked a block away through an alley. Simply put, it was the best walk through an alley I’ve ever had.

Blizzard photo  

In front of my apartment on Sunday night, Feb. 1; there is a foot-high step up to the front door.

True, anyone would agree that the bar for alley walk quality is pretty low, but this was an enlightening 100-yard trek, as you’re about to discover. Not 20 feet into said alley, a man stood outside his vehicle, and as I approached he began talking to me somewhat quietly about why he had stopped. I had nearly walked past his car when I realized he was stuck. I stopped and offered to dig him out. As I shoveled the snow away from his tires, I felt a rush of that cheesy-to-describe yet undeniable feeling that comes with helping someone in need. In fewer than 10 minutes he was on his way, waving “thank you” as he turned onto the street.

Halfway through the alley, I watched as another stuck car freed itself from traction-less peril with the help of two women. I kept walking and was nearly through to end of the alley when I came across a cellphone planted face down in the snow. I yelled to the women behind me to see if it belonged to them, but no luck. I looked at the owner’s favorites list and messaged the first person mentioned. A call came through from a young man five minutes later; he lived down the street and came quickly to retrieve it.

I’ll admit two Good Samaritan deeds within 20 minutes felt pretty darn good. As I began clearing off my car, however, as much as I wanted to pat myself on the back, I couldn’t. I don’t mean to diminish my own kindness, but I literally walked into these opportunities en route to solving my own problems. All I sacrificed were 15 minutes of time that I most definitely had available. I barely left my apartment. There are greater degrees of g’milut chasadim (acts of loving kindness) that I could be going out of my way to do.

I looked down the street to see others working together to help cars get through. My normally quiet neighborhood was bustling with teamwork, of all things. I read stories on Facebook of similar acts of selflessness and I imagine most everyone who weathered Sunday’s storm experienced or witnessed some form of blue-collar altruism as well. Even Wednesday morning, Mollie drove the car to work for the first time since the blizzard, and despite all the room I cleared, she still couldn’t pull out into the street. Two men nearby helped push her out.

This is what storms do. When we all fall victim to the same misfortune, it tests our capacity for empathy and our willingness to help one another. Some people dig others out before themselves; others dig themselves out and put chairs in their spot to keep others out.

It’s refreshing this year to see more of the former, but either way, in a world in which mutual cooperation has become less and less essential for survival, it’s unfortunate that the only thing that physically brings strangers together in this way – or even people who live on the same street – is hardship and tragedy.

Yet ironically, there is hardship and tragedy in our own backyard happening every day, but if it’s not buried in two feet of snow, we don’t realize – or we often forget – that it’s there. Something impacts another neighborhood, another class, another religion, race or ethnicity, so we turn a blind eye.

The silver lining of a storm is that it humbles us. It reminds us of what we can control and what we can’t. A storm can’t be prejudice toward any group of people except based on the climate in which they live. And because it impacts people within proximity of each other, it reminds us that we can in fact make a difference as close by as down the street.

When I think about the tragedies in Paris last month and the tragedies we either overlook or never hear happening daily, I think about how powerless they make us feel. We want to help and feel connected, but there’s not much we can do, or there’s too many fights to fight, to the point that in many cases we just move on with our lives. One of the problems with our interconnected online and social media world is that it’s so much easier to find out about the things we can’t change, which makes it too easy to forget about the things around us that we can affect with even the smallest bit of kindness. Homelessness or hunger, for example, will never be “trending” news items, but they’re problems people in every community can help to alleviate.

My Super Bowl Blizzard mitzvot were convenient ways to spread some kindness and make life a little easier for others, but more importantly they showed me what I could be capable of with a more concerted effort. I believe that we all need reminders of our own strength and potential to do good for others, and that the opportunities to realize it do not lie far beyond the narrow alley of our existence.

Our lives in review

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I'm going to do something that makes me want to throw up a little, though it would've been totally cool and perceptive when I was 17 - start my writing with a lyric from the musical Rent.

"How do you measure, a year in the life?"

If you're on Facebook, you are by now familiar with the "Year in Review" it created for all of its users last week: a slide show featuring month-by-month "highlights" from 2014. Using an algorithm that took into account each user's most viewed, "liked" and commented on pictures and statuses, Facebook assembled the slideshow into a neat recap for users to view and share with friends.

Sounds like a pretty nice feature, unless you had a crappy 2014.

Some Facebook users were startled by photos of loved ones who died this past year, or of people they split from or divorced, or other things associated with bad news. As one would (hopefully) understand, algorithms can't account for good or bad, just what is "popular."

Consequently, Facebook has drawn plenty of public criticism and a fair share of complaints, most notably from a web consultant named Eric Meyer, who stirred up a frenzy of Internet spite toward Facebook when he blogged about his reaction to seeing, "Here's what your year looked like!" on his News Feed above a picture of his 6-year-old daughter who this year died of brain cancer.

This was not a unique problem. I read similar complaints on Facebook, as I'm sure most users did, from at least a couple of friends. Undoubtedly, no one deserves to be needlessly reminded of tragedy, especially not by a website, but is Facebook the real problem here? 

After his blog went viral, Meyer wrote another post apologizing for the out-of-context and prejudiced vitriol it brought upon the company.

"Yes, their design failed to handle situations like mine, but in that, they're hardly alone," he wrote. "… Taking worst-case scenarios into account is something that web design does poorly, and usually not at all. I was using Facebook's Year in Review as one example, a timely and relevant foundation to talk about a much wider issue."

To Meyer, that much wider issue is web application and program design. Clearly most people like the "Year in Review" and sharing it with friends (they certainly flooded my personal News Feed), but how can we better accommodate for these instances of failure?

But that's not my wider issue. My concern is, why care about this at all? 

At this point, I should disclose that as much as I enjoy using Facebook, I'm a total cynic when it comes to personal sharing. I usually apply a "why should anyone care?" and "is this anyone else's business?" test to anything I feel inclined to post. Sharing personal opinions, feelings or details of my life do not usually pass this test; sharing my "Year in Review" totally fails it. I see it as rather presumptuous to think that most of my Facebook friends are interested in viewing a slideshow of my "year," especially if they had a particularly awful one.

The folks at Facebook, however, know that I do not hold the majority view, and they continue to assert themselves into a self-anointed role as the digital chronicle of people's lives. Ever since Facebook began shifting to a timeline layout, they have made it very clear that they want users to see the value of their application as a vibrant, social documentation of their existence. You can now, for example, post "life events" to mark and share personal milestones. Facebook knows that if you believe they're providing not just social media, but a service that helps you to record and share the important moments of your life, that you'll never stop using it. 

What they've forgotten, however, is that a lot of the important moments of our lives, well, suck. The "Year in Review" is just the first big sign that if Facebook wants to be the way you socially document your life, it needs to help you chronicle and share those challenging, painful moments in an appropriate way.

But I, for one, don't know that I want to see the day they do. I don't know that I want my children and grandchildren to learn about who I was by exploring my Facebook photos and random statuses about my feelings or the latest episode of Game of Thrones. That sounds weird, I know, but that's where we're heading. I want them to ask me, to hear me tell my story. I can imagine a scenario in which they see something on my timeline and ask me about it, but that's as far as I want it to go. 

I refuse to let Facebook, or any social media platform, tell my story for me. Whether it's my entire life, the year 2014, or what I do for New Year's, what happened to me as Facebook's algorithms define it, is not what really happened. Even if I poured everything into Facebook, like, tried a Morgan Spurlock-esque experiment in which I used Facebook to document every moment of my waking life, I can't believe that even that would accurately reflect my truth.

So, how do you measure a year in the life?

If I asked you this question out of context, I don't think your answer would be "likes," comments or photos you were tagged in. And it wouldn't be the Tweets you wrote, the pictures you Instagram-ed or the video you sent via Snapchat that in less than 10 seconds vanished into digital dust. Hopefully you'd say it was the relationships you built, the simchas you celebrated, the hardships you overcame - or, as Rent, so poignantly suggests - love.

Grateful for gratitude

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Three years ago this month, I lost my first grandparent, and the timing couldn't have been much worse. After weeks of trying to recover from traumatic surgery, he died just days before my cousin - his youngest grandchild - became a bar mitzvah. So these things always seem to go; even just last week, the observance of my papa's yahrtzeit, I attended a wedding in which the groom had lost his grandfather days before.

As humans do, we look for explanations, reasons and ways to make sense of tragedy and grief. We often refuse to believe these are not random occurrences, but meaningful coincidences. I'm not sure to what extent our loved ones invite or control death until they are ready, but I do believe that in any seemingly unlikely or unbelievable situation, there is meaning to be found.

I found my meaning lying awake in my old bed at my parents' house a few days after his death. As our minds so often do while trying to fall asleep, I started to process my experiences and feelings. Given that I had spent the last couple days distracted by my cousin's bar mitzvah celebrations, I had avoided any lingering sadness, and now it started to creep back in. I began to think about everything that had disappeared from my life now that my papa was gone: how he looked, how he felt, his personality - all things that for my entire life had been realities, suddenly were now memories. I wouldn't get to experience them again. I believe that realization, specifically, is at the core of grief, and the mourning process is about transitioning from lamenting and wrestling with the loss of a loved one to learning to treasure their memory instead.

So, as I tossed and turned, I wanted desperately to change my perspective. How could I begin to overcome my sadness and feel at peace with the loss of someone who at every stage of my life had been there to support me and celebrate all of my accomplishments?

I tried the obvious trick at first. At least I had all four of my grandparents for the first 24 years of my life, I thought. I'm only so sad because I've been so lucky... I am really, really lucky. Eventually, rather than feeling lucky, I began to feel grateful. I was grateful for the time we spent together. I was grateful for all he taught me. I was so grateful that I could remember what he looked like, what it felt like when he put one of his enormous hands on my back. With gratitude - to my family, to God, to the randomness of life, it did not matter - I began to feel better.

Gratitude, it became clear to me, was one of the most powerful forces in the universe.

Being grateful is a popular topic this time of year. My colleague Cindy, for example, just wrote a great piece on how essentially Jewish gratitude is, how it makes our lives better, and how we could all be more mindful in order to see everything for which there is to be thankful. Thanksgiving provides us a solid annual reminder of what we're thankful for in our lives, but anyone who understands not only the yearlong but also the lifelong importance of giving thanks knows that sitting around a table sharing one thing we're grateful for between gluttonous forkfuls doesn't cut it.

A couple years back, my friend Rabbi Lisa Bellows shared a Shabbat sermon on gratitude that I completely forgot except for one detail: Before going to sleep each night, her children would say their "gratefuls" - whatever they were thankful for that day. I thought what an impressive practice that was. For a child, this could be just as a soothing as a lullaby or bedtime story and provides something more tangible than simply offering up private, hopeful prayers. In fact, vocalizing gratitude is its own kind of prayer (aren't all the prayers just different ways of saying "thank you, God"?)  and doing so at the most reflective moment of our day instills the notion that a day is not complete until we've been mindful and appreciative of the good that came from it.

So, with no shame, I began this practice in my own life. A year or so ago, I shared with my girlfriend my feelings and "theory" about the power of gratitude after she'd had a rough day, and we decided to each say three things we were feeling grateful for that day. The practice has since endured, not every night, but many, usually because she reminds me. Coming up with three is not always easy, especially after a hard day, but there are always at least three to be found. And, in addition to being therapeutic, they offer us tremendous insight into what the other person is thinking about, feeling and processing.

To revert to the mainstream annual tradition of giving thanks at the end of November, I am grateful that over the last few years I've discovered the power of practicing gratitude. Since my papa died, every time life has thrown me a challenge, gratitude helps me keep a healthy perspective, to be mindful of all the blessings life brings even in a world where evil and tragedy persist. I realized that we cannot live our lives the way we owe it to ourselves to live if we spend too much time ruminating over pain, hardship and the troubles of our world and don't stop to appreciate the good that endures. And turning something painful into something good - that I can now look back at that difficult time as not just the death of a loved one, but as the beginning of my life as a more grateful, better, human being - that's something for which I could never be grateful enough.

Kosher chaos

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Keeping a kosher home is a total pain in the you-know-what.

It has nothing to do with keeping milk and meat separate, or wanting to eat non-kosher meat because it’s more convenient. It has nothing to do with my past values or observance.

It’s the details that drive me nuts.

When Mollie and I talked about living together, keeping kosher was the first topic we discussed after, you know, whether we would live together. To that point, our dietary differences coexisted just fine. At restaurants, I could get anything I wanted, and she was okay so long as there were veggie options. At home, we cooked vegetarian meals in our respective apartments. So when we moved this summer, it was natural to keep kosher so that friends of all observance levels could come and eat.

I had long been prepared for the change. I was ready to be more selective in my meat purchases and to bid farewell to the homemade chicken quesadillas and add-cheese-to-anything-because-why-not mentality of my previous cooking life. All it would take was a little more vigilance at the grocery store and a viable system for separating milk and meat dishes.

Of course, this was a gross underestimate.

For starters, “dishes” are more than just plates, bowls, pots, pans and silverware. “Dishes” mean separate spatulas, separate serving platters, separate sponges and separate stuff that might never touch meat or dairy, but would probably come in contact with them at some point. So … separate cutting boards, separate mixing bowls, separate food processors and other expensive appliances – separate everything. Suddenly, our rather large kitchen with a floor-to-ceiling pantry seemed to me about four square feet.

When we started unpacking, everything I thought about this seemingly black-and-white transition crumbled into shades of gray. Before we could kosher everything, separate it and buy what we were missing, we needed to make food, and it wasn’t long before I lost track of which baking sheets or which utensil holders had already been claimed for dairy or meat. As someone who likes things in their logical place and doesn’t do things haphazardly, this was total anarchy.

Between this and the limitations of our apartment, how could we possibly do this right?

My instinct was to impose order whenever possible. So, despite my lack of kosher experience, I channeled my inner mashgiach (kosher supervisor) and declared martial halacha. Even as we were cooking, I would go through kitchen items and assign them to Team Milchik or Team Fleischik. My first edict was to distinguish the naturally divided sides of our sink, with each sponge expected to remain on its given side. I also split up our large collection of mugs onto different shelves, and pointed out that we only had one set of wine glasses and one set of Tupperware. And of my own volition, I informed my best friend and former non-kosher roommate, who came to stay with us a month after we moved in, that he could not heat up the sausage he brought home in any of our appliances. He ate it cold, and I felt no remorse.

When our friends and family ask how keeping kosher is going, Mollie describes me as “the enforcer.” Somehow, I have become more rigid than the person who it technically matters to, who one time sat down at the table with a dairy glass when we were eating kosher turkey burgers and didn’t notice until I said something.

If I’m going to live by new rules, I figure it doesn’t make sense to bend or break them. Then again, when I pour myself a beer to go with dinner, I don’t think about what I ate when I last used that pint glass. When I’m drying dishes, I use whatever towel looks cleanest. And technically, we only have one refrigerator and one microwave. It’s an endless battle against an onslaught of minutia. We can only do so much, and we should at least feel comfortable that “our kosher” is enough for us and those who care about us.

More than anything, I’ve realized my kosher police phase is not about becoming more observant, or doing things “the right way”; it’s about committing to values. Having a kosher home is my newest value. It symbolizes the life that Mollie and I are making together.

Any two people can fuse their lives together. A vegan and an omnivore can coexist; someone who loves to bake can live with someone who’s gluten intolerant. The difference is that keeping kosher together creates shared values, and in this case, shared Jewish values. We took on the challenge of koshering our apartment together, and it feels like our kitchen, not Mollie’s mostly kosher kitchen with my little shelf for treif.

We also have other shared values more important than kashrut. For example, energy and resource conservation are also important to us, so we don’t run our dishwasher empty in between milk and meat loads. We want to be intentional about our values, not ruled by them.

We are keeping kosher because we see the value it brings to our lives. In my case, I like that it forces me to be intentional about my home. Seeing dishes piled to the ceiling in one side of the sink while the other half sits empty will always remind me that even my daily activities, like eating, are steeped in my values, and sticking to your values can sometimes be a pain in the you-know-what.

Using our words, about Israel and always

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There are two things that I heard on the playground growing up that I’ve since learned not to be true.

The first – “it’s a free country!” I can think of a few bullies who used this gem to defend their inconsiderate and negligent behavior, not realizing that if it is indeed a free country, it’s everyone’s free country.

The second is the ancient comeback, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

If only. If only hateful speech didn’t hurt anyone. If only we could all look someone who said something malicious straight in the eye, say those 13 words and walk away unchanged. Maybe that works on the playground, but not in the adult world, and especially not today’s adult world.

That world would be Facebook, Twitter, and the comments section of online articles – any corner of the Internet where you are permitted access to a little text box with license to type-type-type away and ultimately publish whatever you want. As someone with a journalism degree, I will defend free speech until some future dystopian autocracy takes it away from me, but lately I’ve begun to feel as though maybe the online world would be more pleasant if there weren’t so many digital soap boxes and megaphones readily accessible.

I spend the larger portion of my work day looking at Facebook, (ahem, I manage JUF’s primary social media accounts …) so I’ve seen a lot of the good social media can do to bring together and forge community, but I’ve also seen the ways it can be used to peddle inflammatory speech and hateful misinformation. Watching JUF’s Facebook page since mid-June, when Eyal, Gilad and Naftali were first reported kidnapped, I’ve been blown away by the sudden intensification of both sides of this coin.

Not since the advent of Facebook has the Jewish community turned so urgently to social media to learn about, discuss and show support for Israel. Our page has gained 345 new fans since June 16 – about 100 more new fans than we average in an entire six-month period. If that’s not enough proof, just perform the eye test on your personal Facebook feed. The amount of articles shared and personal status updates about Israel have simply taken over the online part of Jews’ lives.

On the other side of that coin, more chatter about Israel means more negative chatter about Israel. Allies of the Palestinians and Gaza have been equally if not more prolific in voicing their condemnation of Israel; arguments have erupted between Facebook friends be they Jews debating non-Jews or Jews debating Jews; comment sections of articles have turned into verbal war zones. My job as JUF page administrator has turned into a 24/7 gig, constantly deleting hurtful/inciting comments from our posts.

As I click “hide” on pictures of bloodied children and ban users who write “Israelis are terrorists” beneath photos from JUF’s solidarity rally, I feel justified in my actions, though the First Amendment crusader in me squeals in anguish. On one hand, maybe everyone should see these attitudes exist, sad as they are. On the other hand, why should JUF’s peace-aspiring, community-rallying posts turn into battlegrounds filled with crude remarks and generalizations? The ability to hide behind a smartphone, tablet or computer screen leads far more often to poor exercises of free speech than paragons for civil dialogue.

Last summer I remember realizing the horrific extent to which people were willing to say hateful things on the Internet. The sheer racism, for example, of Twitter users slamming Major League Baseball for selecting a “non-American” in Marc Anthony to sing “God Bless America” at last year’s All-Star Game (Anthony, by the way, was born in Queens) was utterly appalling, and though I was disappointed to learn Jewish baseball slugger Ryan Braun had used steroids, it felt personal when Twitter users responded in anti-Semitic tirades.

It’s difficult to believe social media is a good thing when it can be used to spread such hateful and misinformed world views. If you believe these attitudes will exist no matter what, wouldn’t it make sense to limit how easily people can share them with the masses? And would doing so violate free speech, or protect people from the cancer of hate and prejudice?

It’s a catch-22 of sorts: social media has the power to bring attention to causes and rally people around ideas that would otherwise be overlooked, yet it can also galvanize groups of people whose evil, radical ideas would otherwise remain isolated and marginalized.

And we see that so clearly with all that has gone on in Israel and Gaza. For every article or status shared by a rational, empathetic peace-loving person, some frustrated, shortsighted person reaches for that readily accessible digital megaphone and voices a knee-jerk reaction full of sweeping generalizations. And what happens? The empathetic peace-lover feels threatened, their ire provoked, and they often cave into using the same ferocious style of language as the shortsighted soap-boxer.

Why? Because hateful language is powerful language. Its rhetoric is sharp and barbarous. The moment we read it on Facebook or Twitter we picture it sowing the seeds of hatred in the minds of those less-informed and nonopinionated and we feel a responsibility to strike it down before it’s allowed to fester. But we must combat that hate without stooping to the level of harshness and recklessness that ultimately perpetuates it.

Words do hurt us. Their blows are hard and their wounds deep. Multiply this by at least 10 when it comes to Israel and the Jewish people. Of course attacks on Zionism and Israel are attacks on Jews everywhere. The connection runs deep in a way so many others don’t understand, and as such we are predisposed to respond swiftly when Israel is under fire –whether by rockets or by words.

What we all must realize in our social media world, however, is the responsibility that comes implicit with uninhibited access to a text box and the freedom to hit “post,” “Tweet” or “publish.” Free speech is a right, and with all rights come responsibilities. What you have to say on social media is your prerogative; how you say it – that affects everyone. That’s what spreads. Not your thoughts, your ideas or your opinions, but the language you use to convey them. Even if what you say is a pile of misinformed lies, if you say it the right way, the facts can be easily and civilly corrected.

Imagine a social media world in which every time you hit “post,” “Tweet” or “publish,” a window popped up prompting you to review your comment for any hateful speech or language that might incite unnecessary conflict. Or what if your message had to be approved by pre-determined close friend before being published? It’s like when you work up the nerve to write that angry email to someone only to delete it 30 minutes later and never send it. Sometimes, thinking twice can make all the difference.

With all that said, the comment section is below. How will you use it?

Fighting back

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Cancer. It is humanity's most ruthless, devastating and unforgiving enemy. It steals lives, derails dreams and leaves countless people in sorrow. It attacks unexpectedly and unannounced, yet can be passed down through generations. And it is a faceless villain, one that can't be faulted, that can't be punished, that can't simply be convinced to stop.

I wish this was as hyperbolic as it sounds, but it just isn't. Those of you whose lives have been affected by cancer to yourself, a loved one or a friend surely understand. And I'm guessing that's almost all of you.

My story is this: Seven years ago my uncle lost a long fight with an inexplicable form of cancer; two and a half years ago, his father - my papa - succumbed to what had been a manageable cancer when an accident weakened his condition; a little more than a year ago, my friend Heather lost a five-year battle with a rare adrenal cancer at 25. And these are just the people who were closest to me.

Human beings don't like to feel powerless. We like to believe that if there is something wrong with the world, we can change it. In the case of cancer, the only thing we can do is write checks to people researching it in hopes they might discover a way to stop it.

So what I really want to write about is fighting back.

I didn't really realize that my journey of fighting back against cancer had begun the day I found out my uncle wasn't going to survive it. I was at college, preparing with my Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity brothers for our big philanthropy event, Rock-A-Thon. Every other year, Rock-A-Thon becomes the focus of our chapter; one brother sits in a rocking chair for 48 hours while the others collect donations around town and on campus for the American Cancer Society. I canned for the first day, then left for my uncle's funeral.

I wish I could say this symbolic coincidence empowered me to become a fierce advocate for cancer research, but it didn't. Two years later at the next Rock-A-Thon, I gave my time and energy to help us raise $50,000, and I did so proudly, but I knew I hadn't yet gone above and beyond.

Almost three years later and well removed from college, I could no longer lean on Rock-A-Thon as my vehicle for fighting back, and I knew I wasn't doing enough. That's when I took notice of what my friends Heather and Logan were doing through ACS' Relay for Life.

I had previously ignored Relay for Life in high school and college, but when I saw Heather's passion for Relay, and her unbelievable strength of spirit to organize a fundraising effort for the very thing she was personally battling, I decided to give it a try. I joined her team, Chemosaurus Rex, and even wrote a song to voice my hatred for cancer as a way to raise funds.

Raising money on my own, I finally felt I had stepped up and spoken out as someone willing to fight cancer. I had hidden behind AEPi's united front during Rock-A-Thon, raising money because it was expected of me and it was important work. I had yet to make my fight personal, believing there was little I could do on my own.

But there was a little I could do. I didn't need to write the check that would lead to a cure for cancer, but I needed to show the survivors, caregivers and other fighters in my life and my community that I would support them, that I was not going to be silent and do nothing.

When I finally did, I never could've anticipated the support I would find in Relay. These were others whose lives were (in most cases) more grievously affected by cancer that my own. Even though I didn't need their support in an active sense, being around hundreds of Relayers fighting similar emotional battles to myself was a comfort.

When we lost Heather last year, we lost the heart and soul of our team. Her spirit for Relay was infectious, as was her ability to appropriately nag me to make sure I was effectively fundraising. Last year, I raised another $1,000 for Relay because I simply had to - for her and for me.

Today I'm less than two weeks from Relay - and I'm struggling. I'm not close to my goal. More lives have been lost to cancer. Another year of asking my friends and family to support me yet not being able to show them any evidence of positive change - it's difficult. The fight is never-ending and cancer doesn't care that I have all kinds of other stuff going on in my life.

It's times like this when I am in awe of the survivors, the caretakers - those who don't have a choice about whether or not they wish to fight cancer that day. And I admire those who carry on the memory of loved ones, those with a bone to pick with cancer, the ones who fight back with every fiber of their being, because to them, there's no alternative. Their strength cannot be overestimated.

I'm still learning what it takes to fight back for a cause - I think we all are. But we can all be the allies and supporters of those in the trenches who've found the strength that we're looking for. We can cheer them on, thank them and recognize them. They are the champions of hope, and it is my hope we can all eventually join their ranks.

Taking myself to church

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This past Sunday, a gorgeous and sunny Easter morning, I put on my Sunday best and went to church.

Almost my entire family is Jewish, so this was completely voluntary. The gist of it is that Mollie and I were invited by her friend Lauren and her husband Jon to come to church and then have Easter brunch at their apartment. They had even gone so far as to prepare kosher-for-Passover options. Kosher-for-Passover Easter brunch? That kind of gesture you don't turn down.

In truth, I had been to a Sunday church service once before. During my final year of undergrad in Missouri, I had a friend who played keyboard in her church worship band. I could never come see her because every Sunday I was also busy leading music - for the religious school at the local synagogue. She had seen me leading services on Friday night before, so I wanted to complete the exchange, so to speak.

If you've never seen a church band before, it's like going to any popular concert - only much less rowdy and all the songs are about God and Jesus. The vocalists and instrumentalists are usually very talented, and they play a variety of catchy tunes, in between which the pastor offers words of prayer and later a sermon.

Before my first church band experience, my only frame of reference for this music was those TV infomercials for Christian rock compilation CDs and the occasional surprise while scanning F.M. radio stations. Praying in the form of popular-sounding songs in English that celebrated Jesus as the Son of God was not in my comfort zone, but I sang along when I could, mumbling through or pausing when certain lyrics conflicted with my beliefs. I couldn't bring myself to pretend that I wasn't Jewish for an hour or sing these words as if they had no meaning. Feeling all that, however, it still didn't take me long to realize that this easily could've been my life.

If I'd been born to a Christian family - something I had no control over - yet otherwise grown up the same person, I would be up on that stage, passionate and humbled to lead my community in songs of praise, believing these words with all my heart and soul. Faith is not genetic - but it is usually inherited. We can ultimately choose our religion and beliefs, but they often try to choose us first.

I remembered having this epiphany five years ago as I stood in church on Easter Sunday. I still whispered over the many lyrics declaring Jesus' divinity and celebrating his resurrection, but I also felt something stirring inside me as this passionate, emotional music and singing filled the room. I knew this feeling. I experienced it in synagogue growing up, at Jewish summer camp, at Friday night minyanim in Chicago. It's what happens when people get together and sing. When a community gathers - united by the same values, everyone looking for the same connection - and makes music, it is powerful. It is moving. Theology, customs, observance - these are just details. They mean nothing in the face of the raw spiritual energy created when people sing together.

So I didn't sing all the words, but I sang. I added occasional wordless harmonies and otherwise admired the beauty of the moment.

Even though I wasn't truly connecting to their music, I could see and hear and feel their spiritual passion. I know what this feels like. I feel the same way when I'm with my community, singing the songs I know with words I believe in. We both use music; we channel its energy for spiritual purposes, just with different words, and with different instruments. All faiths have this in common, even when we disagree about the details. It is only when we share with each other that we can discover the similarities amongst the differences.

I am grateful that my connection to music allows me to reach over the walls that divide people, to connect with others I would otherwise just identify as very different from myself. Next time someone asks me to come with them to their church, mosque or whatever kind of temple, I won't refuse the invitation - but I will ask if there will be singing.

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