We Don’t Really Graduate — We Up Our Game
My Wexner certificate came in the mail, marking the formal end of my time in the Wexner Heritage Program. Wexner changed my life, in more ways that one. Wexner gave me the knowledge and tools I need to lead my community into a brighter future, but more importantly, it gave me myself.
I prepared for the panel interview for what seemed like months. During that interview, I hoped they could not see my legs shaking under the table. I left thinking I blew it. No way they’d pick me even though I sold myself as hard as I could.
I vividly recall getting ready for work and receiving the call from Rabbi Jay Moses, telling me I was accepted for the program. “Oh my goodness, you’re kidding” came out of my mouth. They chose me? I was in, but maybe they made a mistake?
Rabbi Jay gave a great talk on Imposter Syndrome at our first summer institute, and how 70% of the population deals with this. I certainly identified. I’m not cut out for this. What am I doing here? I did my best impression of Fake It Till You Make It and moved forward. Still I struggled daily with Imposter Syndrome, ever so slightly consoled that most of us in the room felt the same way.
Fast-forward one year, to the second summer institute: I sat in a hands-on Design Thinking Workshop, magazines and glue sticks as my tools. As I worked on the visual project, a poem with found imagery, I self-counseled.
What happened to my brave, bold girl?
she who walked into the valley
and feared no evil?
Where is the woman
who leapt into the sea
though the path was not yet visible?
She who trusted
G-d, the process, herself?
She is still
here — resting
The cocoon is ready to open.
Indeed, I could finally acknowledge it. The words and images on the page didn’t lie. Somehow, I had lost myself, my boldness.
I spent the next year looking for her, that brave bold girl of my past. A few friends assured me she was still in there somewhere, tucked away. I doubted.
How would I find my strength? Where would I even begin?
I purposefully sought out situations that would make me uncomfortable, situations I would normally avoid. “If you’re comfortable, you’re not learning” became my motto. I would take a deep breath, brace myself, and plunge forward. It was an uncomfortable year, bordering occasionally on unbearable, but slowly, the brave girl leaked out. In small meetings I found chances to open my mouth instead of remaining silent; she grew bolder still. I popped anti-anxiety meds from time to time, but still, she grew.
Personal setbacks plagued me that year, but I chose not to hide them. Instead I gathered my strength and reached out, exposing the painful issues that sought to derail me. They were part of my experience, and I realized, not a shanda. Others surely deal with similar struggles. This was not a time to hide.
So many people reached out to me after I began to share my struggles. The love and support I gained steeled me for the battle. I was not alone; in fact, I’ve helped others to come forward and seek the support they need.
This past July I had the privilege of returning to Israel for our final Wexner Summer institute. We spent days in meetings with other brave, bold people, people I admired. Maybe some of that bravery rubbed off on me.
While wandering the streets of Jerusalem after Shabbat, I found her. There in the Aldo on Ben Yehuda, while getting a gelato at 11 pm (!), she emerged fully-formed from the shadows. For the first time in ages, I was alive again.
The time came on our trip for one massive measure of boldness. I took the stage with my cohorts to present our graduation project. As I stepped up to the podium and opened my mouth to sing the brachot of Havdalah, she came forward as well. We were united, bold girl and timid me. I sang loud and clear, head held high. I did not stutter; I did not falter. I led our class in blessing, as I had once led prayer all those years ago in my youth.
I hope she’ll stick around. We have a lot to accomplish, this bold girl and I.
Jenifer Newmark, a Wexner Heritage Alum (St Louis 15), is a registered veterinary nurse and published writer with a background in research and social media. She currently serves as a member of the board of trustees for United Hebrew Congregation in Chesterfield, MO. She lives in St. Louis with her husband John and their twin sons Martin and Samuel. She can be reached at email@example.com.