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Feeling the Speedbumps

Yitti Berkovic

Last June, when schools were still shuttered and events were all canceled, I got a text that caused me to groan. The text was innocent enough, and it was accompanied by the requisite grinning emoji. “Hi everyone!” it announced to my son’s class chat. “It’s so sad that our boys can’t have a typical graduation, so we are ordering custom lawn signs to wish them mazel tov. Click on the link to order one for your son!”

Custom lawn signs? Was that a thing?

I hated to be the curmudgeon of the group, but did our boys really need another I’m-sorry-your-8th-grade-graduation-was-canceled consolation prize? We’d already ordered them class sweatshirts, which had until then been prohibited by the yeshivah, but an exception was made because of the circumstances. We’d already sponsored a class social-distancing siyum with pizza, French fries, and garlic knots to show our boys how proud we were of their teleconference learning. Now we needed lawn signs, too?

As I debated how to respond, my husband looked on in bemusement. “Why does this bother you so much? It’s a cute idea, and it’s not that expensive.”

I didn’t know what to answer him. Why did it bother me so much? It wasn’t the price, and it wasn’t the idea. At that time especially, I wanted to support every small business that I could, and I was glad the printers had found a new avenue for parnassah.

I think what bothered me was the premise: that it was our job as parents to make up for the disappointment our kids were experiencing due to circumstances entirely beyond our control.  Yes, it was disappointing for the boys to miss out on a typical graduation (though none of the parents were complaining). Yes, it was disappointing to have your graduation trip canceled – especially when it was a trip for which you’d been fundraising for months and a trip you’d really been looking forward to. 

But life isn’t free of disappointments. And, at least to me, there’s something unhealthy about pretending that we, as parents, can always swoop in and make the hurt go away.

It reminded me of something that happened to me when I was still hovering somewhere between adolescence and adulthood.

When I left to seminary a million years ago (circa 2000), I arrived in Eretz Yisrael at what was considered one of the most peaceful times in her history. We were encouraged to ride buses without fear and not to panic if there was a chefetz chashud – and we expected the year to continue that way. That was the script we had written for ourselves. And then, on Erev Rosh Hashanah, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ventured onto Har Habayis, and the Palestinians, looking for an excuse to agitate, began to protest violently. The violence bubbled over to what would come to be called the Second Intifada, a bloody, terrifying wave of bombings and other cowardly acts of terrorism.

Our seminary year quickly became very different than we had anticipated.

Girls were terrified. Parents were terrified. Some parents even booked tickets to bring their daughters home, and a handful of girls were whisked back to America. My parents were in constant contact with their travel agent, waiting for the moment I would call and say I was too scared to stay. For the most part, I remained calm. On my campus atop the scenic hills of Har Nof, surrounded by Israelis with skin far thicker than mine, I felt mostly safe.

But everything changed one day in October.

On our beds in our dorm, we listened to the chadashot, piecing together the story with our limited Hebrew, and learned about the horrific lynching of two Israeli soldiers. The soldiers had committed the terrible “crime” of taking a wrong turn and ending up in the Arab-controlled city of Ramallah – where they were torn apart simply because they were Jews. 

I can still see the atrocious pictures in my mind – the blood, yes, but also the barbaric joy of the hundreds of Palestinians who cheered the senseless murders with unrestrained glee. 

For us, the young, sheltered Americans, these images were traumatizing and gut-wrenching and more than we knew how to process.

The administration at our seminary, Israelis far more inured to security crises and times of sakana, were desperate to calm us down and help us feel safe. They meant well. I know they did. But some ill-advised madrichot chose to throw us a party – with candy and music and frivolity – hoping we could dance our fears away instead of staying glued to the chadashot. They made up some excuse, but we knew the point of the party was to distract us and cause us to look away from what was right there in front of us.

It worked for some girls, but many of us were stunned – even angry. We wanted to scream, “Help us learn to cope with what we’re feeling instead of encouraging us to look away!” Looking away was supposed to make us feel better, but it left us feeling worse. It left us feeling empty.

It’s been many years since that “party,” but I couldn’t help thinking about it as we brainstormed new ways to cheer up our kids who lost out due to the pandemic. Undoubtedly, it was a difficult and unsettling time for Tzvi and his friends. It was hard to see him upset. But I knew it wasn’t my job to distract him, especially when so many people in Klal Yisrael were still suffering. I wanted him to lean into his disappointment.  I wanted him to recognize that when things don’t go as planned in life, we don’t need to obfuscate the truth or play the music so loud that we drown out the realities right in front of us.

Even when we don’t know why Hashem sends us challenges, these challenges should trigger growth and reflection – not our impulse to close our eyes or cover our ears.

Tzvi is still a teenager, and he’s allowed to act like one. But I can validate his feelings and empathize with what he feels he lost – without clanging a bell so he looks in a different direction. And though I couldn’t give him the graduation sendoff he hoped for, I was grateful that he graduated with a recognition that Hashem maps out our lives, and the speedbumps that appear are there to be experienced – not to be ignored or covered up by even the most well-meaning parents.

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