These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

December 14, 2008 (I think)–The Day that Accidentally Changed my Life Forever

Posted on April 12, 2013 by Derek Kwait

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Never underestimate the impact of one good deed, on the doer at least as much as on the recipient.

I went on Birthright through Hillel in late December 2008. During one of our pre-Israel orientation sessions, they told us we would have the opportunity to pack suitcases filled with clothes, shoes, toys, the JCC something like the Sunday before our trip, which, from looking at calendars, I guess was probably December 14, to bring to kids in the children’s village in Karmiel, Pittsburgh’s sister city, during our day of community service.

I turned to my friend and asked if he was going. He wasn’t sure.

“If you go, I’ll go,” I told him. He said he’d see.

That Shabbat, he told me he was going. So I decided I would go too.

When I arrived at the JCC, I didn’t see him and considered turning back (I get immensely shy in new places where I don’t know anyone, and this goes triple for those places where you need to explain yourself over an intercom to get in), but then I thought of the mitzvah, took a deep breath, waited to catch the door after someone coming or going, then went in. I soon recognized some people, including my friend, in a room just to the right of the entrance stuffing suitcases with colorful clothes, toys, and, since these were for Israeli children, Crocs. I went in, said hi to my friend, found some stuff to stuff, and began stuffing it for tzedaka.

Shortly after I arrived, a woman came up and introduced herself as Tsipy, the Director of the Agency for Jewish Learning. I told her I was a student at Pitt. She asked me what I study. “Writing,” I said.

“Do you want an internship?”

“What? Wait, I mean yeah, um, sure! Of course, that’d, that’d be great!” (If you haven’t figured it out by now, this might be a good time to point out that Tsipy is Israeli.)

“Good, so you could come and write articles and press releases for us? I would do it, but I don’t write in English so good, I know you will do it better.”

“You know, actually, I feel like you should know that my focus is fiction, I don’t really have a background in journalism or any of that sort of thing,” I said. Sometimes I’m so stupid it’s appalling. But thankfully, she was walking, talking to other people, and doing four or five other things as I said this so she wasn’t really listening. When she finished her side conversations, she looked up from her iPhone then turned back to me.

“So when you go to Karmiel, I want you to write an article about it, make sure you talk to people there and show how much it means to them, okay?”

“Absolutely, thanks so much for this opportunity.”


I went on Birthright, took notes, and wrote this article when I got back. When I sent it to Tsipy, she was very pleased with it, and gave me other assignments. Around this time, I got an email from Hillel International about a contest for students to write about their volunteer experiences during Birthright or Alternative Spring Break, with the winners getting to go to Barack Obama’s Inauguration in January. Since I had the article sitting around anyway, I sent it in then quickly forgot about it. A week or two later, I was bewildered to learn that I was one of four winners. They flew me in that very weekend to see the We Are One concert on January 18, 2009, two days before the Inauguration, with then-Hillel VP Scott Brown and Stephanie, a fellow winner from the University of Delaware (while I’m at it, I want to take this opportunity to sincerely apologize for that hat combo).


It was an experience I’ll never forget. A whole city stuffed with people, all acting as neighbors and friends, all of us so completely ecstatic about the chance to witness the history we made we barely noticed the freezing cold. Porta-potties lined up as far as the eye could see. I remember these things more than I even remember the actual concert or the (I’m sure) brilliantly inspirational speech Obama gave afterward.

Living on campus in Delaware, Stephanie lived close enough to DC to take the Joe Biden Express to and from, but since I couldn’t do that, I got to stay overnight at Mr. Brown’s gorgeous home in Northern Virginia. That night was also the AFC Championship Game between the Steelers and the Ravens. Even though he was a Browns fan, he offered to record the game for me as soon as he found out I was coming. Since the concert ended in the late afternoon, I’ll explain the reason he needed to record it later, but suffice it to say between the concert, the hospitality, a long phone conversation with my grandmother (a’h), and seeing the Steelers beat the Ravens to advance to the Super Bowl, it was an unforgettable day, to say nothing of the other thing that happened, the reason he needed to record the game, which I’ll get to later.

When I got back from DC, Tsipy took me to coffee then called the Jewish Chronicle of Pittsburgh to tell them they needed to give me an internship. That summer, they did, a paid one at that, and I would go on to serve as a staff writer and videographer for them for the next year.


Meanwhile, though by January 2009, I had been going to Young People’s Synagogue regularly for a few months already, I felt I hardly really knew anyone there but my grandfather and his friend. I think this was largely due to the discomfort that comes from consistently being the youngest person there by at least 40 years. Not exactly my homedawgs. Grandpa kept insisting I speak some Shabbos about my Birthright experience, but I kept demurring—why would these established geniuses want to listen to me? But he insisted, so I agreed. I spoke about my Birthright experience on Parashat Tazria-Metzora 2009. Those few people who managed to get a word in edgewise loved my speech. Some of them weren’t even my Mom.


Fast-forward to spring/summer 2011. I wanted desperately to go to Pardes for a year, but could barely afford even one semester. I mentioned my situation to the President of Young People’s Synagogue, where by now I knew and liked them and they knew and liked me, for my speeches as much as for the excuse I provided them for hanging on to their name, and he set up a scholarship fund for me that ultimately raised around $7,000 to send me to Pardes for a year. (This is just a summary. Please watch this video for the amazing full story of how exactly this scholarship happened.) The scholarship led to this article in the Chronicle and also put me in touch again with its editor. He asked me if I would consider blogging for the Chronicle while I was over there. I had thought about blogging my Israel experience before, and was leaning against it. But now that the Chronicle was interested, that changed things, so I said I would. That blog ultimately led to my being put in charge of this blog, which is the biggest reason I was able to stay a second year at Pardes, a year that is shaping out to be perhaps the best of my life, which, thank God, is saying a lot.

And it occurred to me during a conversation with a friend earlier this semester that none of this—the contest win, the Chronicle internship, maybe the scholarship, and certainly the Pardes Fellowship, to say nothing of the disadvantaged kids who got clothes and toys—would have happened had I not (or, perhaps more honestly, had my friend not) gone to pack suitcases that Sunday morning in December 2008. This brings me back to the other event of January 18, 2009, the one I missed watching most of the AFC Championship Game live for—some meeting of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington at the local JCC Mr. Brown wanted me to join him for, and about which I remember virtually nothing. What I do remember though is the ride home. As we drove out of the JCC’s parking lot, I asked him what is the secret to succeeding in the Jewish world. He gave me an answer I’ll never forget: “Just show up.”

A picture of us packing Crocs at the JCC on the day that has determined the course of the past 5 years of my life.