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April 20, 2014 / 20 Nisan, 5774
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Part VII: The End…The Beginning

Friday, June 8th, 2012

The first six sections of my story have focused on my struggles adapting to a strange college environment forced on me against my will. While that story is self-contained, I thought it would be worthwhile to at least partially answer the main question my book will address: What ended up happening to me? This is a fast-forwarded account that describes my watershed moment as a college student.

It is not often that someone can look back and divide their life into two separate and distinct sections—a before and an after. It may seem that the logical dividing point in my life was when I left yeshiva and started college, but that really is not the case. It was very possible, if not likely, that I could have spent my collegiate career as an overwhelmed and uncomfortable fish perpetually stuck out of water, without experiencing any significant personal change or growth. I get a lot of weird glances when I say this, but it is 100% true: Louis Farrakhan changed my life – for the better.

While the Nation of Islam is probably not a major part of most of our lives, they are rather prominent in Chicago where they are headquartered. I had been following the extreme racial and anti-Semitic antics of Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam for quite some time. He was often in the news, and never for any particularly good reasons. The black and white world in which I lived had everything to do with right and wrong and nothing to do with race, but there were few people I deemed more radically evil than Farrakhan.

I had often seen members of the Nation of Islam on the train or handing out their propaganda newspaper, “The Final Call.” They were people I avoided at all cost.

As I became more active in my classes, it was clear I stood out. People I didn’t recognize would come up to me in the hallways or on the bus and comment about something I said in class. I attributed that visibility to my yarmulke, but the truth is I stood out because I was so actively engaged in my classes, much more so than my classmates.

The message I internalized, however, was that I was obviously different because I was Jewish, and my peers would always notice that. It was my job to represent my heritage well and successfully defend it when necessary.

I was absolutely shocked to find signs advertising a speech by Louis Farrakhan at the start of the fall 1992 semester. I could not understand how this was possible. The concept of political correctness was fundamental to the college experience in the 1990’s. We were consistently told that anything derogatory or in anyway insulting to a racial or ethnic group was forbidden and even grounds for dismissal, yet somehow, the most virulent of anti-Semites was speaking at a campus sponsored event!

To me, this was even more evidence that the persecution of Jews was unique in world history, how else can one explain the most basic principle of campus discourse being ignored to allow Farrakhan the opportunity to speak?

While the planned event did encourage some heated student discussions both in and outside of class, I chose to ignore them. I kept looking for signs and fliers about the counter demonstration that would surely take place during the speech, but none appeared.

I assumed that the protesters had taken a more secretive approach, and that there would be a major protest at the event itself, if not by the student body as a whole, at least by the Jewish students, even if I was not aware of who was organizing it.

The speech was limited to NEIU students only. While I was a student, I was having a tuition bill issue that semester (they could never read my FAFSA and I went through 5-6 revisions before we got it right—they have since moved to an online system). As a result, I did not have the stamp on my ID certifying that I was a current student.

That meant that I could not gain admittance to the speech itself. Security was tight on the day of the event. I showed up outside of the auditorium early, fully expecting to find a major protest underway, but I was sorely disappointed. There was not a single sign or person protesting. I was shocked. How could that be? How could a person like Farrakhan be allowed to speak in the first place? And even if he was allowed to speak, how could the college community ignore this provocation? I simply could not believe it.

Israeli Startup Helping Americans Find Jobs

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

As the US economy suffers from a stagnant unemployment rate, an Israeli startup company is using innovative technology to change the way Americans search for and find jobs.

Utilizing social networking as its base, Jobsminer.com is the only job search engine that aggregates jobs in real time from social networks including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Plus, and more. While such social networks are generally limited to family, friends or followers, JobsMiner offers a ground-breaking means to access job opportunities hidden within the vast and relatively untamed social networking frontier.

In unlocking these hidden jobs, JobsMiner presents potential employment opportunities that otherwise would have been missed by the job seeker.

If someone for example, wants to search for potential jobs in Maine, a simple click on the website’s map of the state yields a list of jobs, ranging from office manager in Portland to registered nurse in Bangor, all drawn from various social networking sites. The job seeker can always tailor the search by specifying the job field he or she is interested in and the geographical area.

According to the company’s CEO, Ran Enoch, over 22 million Americans have used social networks to find their most recent job in 2011.

“The majority of jobseekers today use social networking,” Enoch told Tazpit News Agency in an exclusive interview.

“Ours is the first and only on-line tool that searches all social media websites for relevant jobs,” he added.

JobMiner’s social media search engine is based upon the unique technology of Makam, a leading Israeli company which has been monitoring and analyzing social media for seven years, providing services in the fields of government, security, and healthcare to thousands of users in organizations both in Israel and internationally including the US.

“The reason that we chose to launch JobsMiner in the United States is due to the current economic climate of the country and partly because of our familiarity with the market there,” explained Enoch.

“Our search engine crawls through social networks, blogs and forums, filtering out the clutter and presenting those job opportunities that are relevant to the job seeker. What we realized is that company employees many times will post about a job opening on their social networks before it even appears on the company’s website or job board. JobsMiner gets this information out to a much wider circle of people in the quickest possible way.”

Launched in February 2012, JobsMiner has already helped countless Americans locate jobs, according to Enoch.

Joyce Lain Kennedy, a Los Angeles Times syndicated Careers columnist predicts that JobsMiner “holds the potential to play a major role in the 21st century job search revolution.” She described JobsMiner in her column as “an impressive burst of creative energy to refresh your job search.”

With ten Israeli employees who oversee one million job postings per month, JobsMiner is a small start-up company located in Kiryat Ono near Tel Aviv, and is looking to expand its services.

“Following our success in the American market, we are looking at the job market in Spain right now,” said Enoch. The company is also looking elsewhere in Europe and plans to make its job service technology available in its own home country in the coming months, with the Hebrew-language system already set.

“Even with our plans to continue expanding, one thing will not change and that is we plan to always keep our services free of charge,” Enoch told Tazpit News Agency. JobsMiner provides its services for free as it generates revenue through clicks on Google advertisements on its site.

“In general, our company’s vision is to continue to help people find work across the globe,” concludes Enoch.

Part VI: Academics

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

While things might have seemed very strange in this foreign college environment, especially because I was tossed in without any roadmap to help me navigate and understand the kinds of things I was seeing all around me, there was one area I was not worried about: academics. Northeastern Illinois has a rather derogatory nickname, “Northeasy,” and it does not have a very good academic reputation. I didn’t think my classes would be very hard at all.

I was coming from the yeshiva world. Even though I didn’t learn much, I knew that I was good at it. I was also of the belief that every academic endeavor paled in comparison to the rigors of Gemara. There was no question in my mind – the academic side of college would not be a challenge at all.

Things started out well. I was only taking two classes, and doing the reading as required. My first test was in U.S. History, about four weeks into the semester. I always suffered from severe test anxiety, even when I was in yeshiva. Although I was always very nervous about taking tests, the unbearable anxiety was in receiving the grades. I have always felt that component is beyond my control, especially on subjective tests, and I never liked it.

My professor handed back my exam, and fortunately for me, the grade was on the inside of the first page of the blue book. I decided not to look at it right away and put it in my backpack until I could gather the courage.

A couple of weeks passed. I couldn’t bring myself to look. In the interim, I took another test, this time in World History. I got the blue book back, and much to my chagrin, there was a big, red 66 staring at me on the front cover. For a fleeting moment, I was convinced that I was looking at the test upside down and that I had really scored a 99. No such luck. My grade was a 66, a D-.

I’ll never forget my bus ride home. I thought this test was it. I failed and I was done, and for good measure, I never should have tried this experiment in college education in the first place. I knew it was time to drop out. On a whim, I decided to take a look at that other exam. What difference could it make now?

Fortunately for me, that score was a B, not great, but not terrible. That turned out to be my saving lifeline. I had a reason to believe that I could still succeed. That night, I decided I would talk to my professors and find out if my college career was worth salvaging. I reviewed my tests so I could discuss the feedback the professors had given.

There was nothing memorable about the conversation I had with the World History professor. A lot of talk about expressing ideas and complete answers, but nothing that could answer the question I really needed answered: could I make it in college?

Even though I had done relatively well on the U.S. History test, my conversation with that professor was much more memorable. After discussing how I could improve my score, I asked him about that poor score in my other class. He told me there were no excuses in college: You have to produce without complaint or blaming anyone but yourself. On the way out, I asked him about one particular piece of feedback on my exam. He had written that one of my answers was too “nebulous.” I asked what nebulous meant. He shot back, “Mr. Shapiro, if you had such questions I would have expected you to look the word up before you came in to meet with me!”

In essence, that could have been the kind of conversation that encouraged me to drop out. No excuses means it was my fault I didn’t do well. I had all these excuses for my failure, ready to express in my head, but my professor clearly dismissed them all. Fortunately, that professor stoked my competitive side (football was good for something) and I decided to complete the semester and see what I could do. It couldn’t hurt because if I failed, I would be no worse off than having dropped out.

As it turned out, the World History professor was a visiting professor from Northwestern University, a top-tier school a few miles from NEIU. She had often remarked in class that we were not Northwestern material, and the test scores reflected that. Most of the class had done very poorly. I also realized that she wasn’t likely to fail the entire class.

The next challenge was with term papers. I had done very well in my history classes in yeshiva with the exception of my term papers. I had always struggled with those. In addition, I had no idea how to type, and my term papers had to be typed.

Part IV: Adjusting To College

Monday, February 27th, 2012

Realizing that there was no backing out of college at this point, I resigned myself to my fate. I was in college, like it or not, but I didn’t believe that I really belonged in college. I felt like a stranger, suddenly thrust into a weird, unknown world. The college culture was completely foreign to me, and I had no idea how to make sense of the things I was seeing and experiencing.

I was always afraid of standing out, worried that people would notice me and realize that I just didn’t belong. That perspective haunted me for years, even after I was actively engaged in the campus community. Throughout my undergraduate years, I never walked into a class late. If the class had already started, I’d skip the session rather than walk in and have all eyes focused on me (interestingly, I had no such hesitation about leaving classes early).

Even though it was a girl who had shamed me into walking into my first class, it was dealing with and relating to the women in my class that presented my first significant challenge. I had gotten very used to the idea of only having males in my class (including teachers in high school). This had been one of the root causes of my original college phobia. How would I relate to women in my age group, and more importantly, how would they relate to me?

I had no framework with which to relate to the women in my classes, and very little experience talking with women at all. I had often heard discussions about the decadent non-Jewish culture and how a complete lack of morality was the norm. That scared me at the time, although in retrospect, obese, bearded men with big cloth yarmulkes were not exactly all the rage among college coeds.

Because my experience with girls was so limited, I was used to being on my best behavior in their presence. I was used to projecting the kind of persona one would expect on a shidduch date. That kind of behavior is very hard to keep up over a long period of time, especially in a classroom setting in which I was already used to being a bit of a character.

It took me years to begin to relate with women in my class. My default reaction was to always pair with men in group projects and teams, and when a professor announced the highest class grade, my gut reaction was to wonder which of the men received that grade. Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) is a commuter campus. Students come and go through the day and there are no dorms. As such, the open level of immorality that one associates with college campuses wasn’t as stark at NEIU. However, I was aware of certain campus areas that had nicknames and “bad reputations,” even though I wasn’t quite sure what that meant exactly.

That being said, I clearly was clueless about some of the things going on around me. I once innocently floated the idea of a sleep area for students with long breaks between classes. It seemed like a perfect idea to me, and a way to provide a service to students who were frustrated at the long wait times between classes. It took me a few moments to understand the problem, especially after I persisted against the incredulous objections of my fellow student government members.

My ignorance and innocence did lead to a couple of humorous stories. I took Spanish as my foreign language requirement. The professor was young, probably only a few years older than her students, and attractive. One morning, in order to demonstrate some cultural differences (multiculturalism and political correctness were the rule of the day in the 1990′s), she decided to go around the class kissing all the students on the cheek – as she explained that was how people of Spanish decent greeted each other. As you can imagine, the sight of me backed up against the wall, arms crossed in front of me to ward her off got many a laugh. It must have been quite a sight. In the end, she bypassed me (a non-Jewish student sitting directly to my left did make a similar protest, pointing at me as an example, but he was ignored), but that was probably my single most embarrassing experience as an undergraduate. Another such situation came up when I was donating blood. At the time due to blood safety considerations, during screening, the donor was asked numerous questions about their moral behavior. Being uncomfortable with the line of questioning, as soon as the screener began, “Have you ever…” I would answer ‘no” without letting her finish the quesion. After a few such answers, she looked at me in a frustrated way and asked how I knew the answer before she finished the question.

Part III: First Day Of College

Friday, January 27th, 2012

Within the span of just a few weeks, everything I knew about myself and all of my plans were destroyed. I was out of yeshiva, living at home and enrolled in classes at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU).  I did check to see if NEIU had a football team, but much to my chagrin, I was told they had to eliminate it when they moved up to Division 1 (strike one against Division 1!).

NEIU does not have a good academic reputation.  It’s often derogatorily referred to as “North-easy.”  Much of the focus of those around me who were trying to convince me that I would do fine, was that it was such an easy school.  That really didn’t build my confidence, nor made attending any more enticing, especially because performing academically was the least of my concerns, although in retrospect, that would become much more of a problem than I had anticipated.

There wasn’t much in terms of preparation for school.  I was so sure I wouldn’t go through with it that I didn’t take the shopping very seriously.  I do remember buying a pack of pens (the cheap bic pens wouldn’t do, I needed fancier pens for some reason) and a back pack (which somehow I knew was supposed to be slung over one arm, as opposed to worn normally).

My overall strategy had not changed.  My father made it clear to me that he was going to drive me to my first day of school (I didn’t drive at the time, and he wanted to make sure I didn’t get “lost” on the bus).  He could force me to go to school, but he could not force me to go into my class.  I knew what I had to do.  I would go, spend a few hours wandering about, come home and declare that I couldn’t do it.

For some reason (and to this day I don’t know why) I asked my dad to drop me off 2 hours before class time.  I found the “science” building on campus, walked in and wandered around for a few minutes.  Other classes were in session.  Many of those classes had their doors open, so I was able to peer inside.  Doing so only made me more nervous.  The students in those classes all looked like they belonged, when I clearly did not.  I was sure that this was not going to work.

I walked up the ramp in the rather curiously designed “science” building, and after wandering the halls for a few minutes, located the classroom that would host my first class.  This was 2 class sessions before my scheduled time.  I sat down on the floor opposite the classroom, and waited.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had inadvertently stumbled on a typical piece of NEIU culture.  Budget cuts made the availability of required courses scarce, and students often sat for long periods of time outside of classrooms waiting for their next class.  This made me seem like much more of an insider than I actually was.

I sat there for almost 90 minutes, watching one class exit, and the next enter.  The more I saw, the more convinced I was that this was not for me.  I’d wait for the class to begin, I would refuse to go inside, and this little experiment in college education would end.

And then the unexpected happened.  NEIU had a very small Orthodox population.  Over the course of my studies at NEIU, I would have 5-6 Orthodox students in all of my classes combined.  While I was staring at the ground, I heard a voice to my left.  It was an Orthodox girl I knew from the neighborhood.  She said, “Hi Chaim, you are in this class? That’s great, because I like knowing people in my classes.”  Those words would change me forever, for as frightened as I was about entering that classroom and encountering whatever I would encounter, I was more embarrassed to be seen by her as a coward who was too scared to go into class.

In retrospect, I could have told her I was in a different class (although she’d probably ask me why I was sitting outside of that one in particular), but I made the decision that I had no choice but to walk into that classroom.

I walked in and took a desk in the front row (which would become a location of choice throughout my college career), next to her.   I really wanted to disappear into the floorboards, but that wasn’t possible. I just sat there and watched the clock tick down until the class started.

I don’t remember much from that first class.  I know I raised my hand (hoping no one would notice it) when the professor asked if there were any history majors in the class.  I also remember taking the Syllabus, too afraid to ask what a Syllabus was.

Part II: College – I Don’t Think So!

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

Suddenly and abruptly, everything I had always known about myself no longer applied. There would be no long yeshiva career, Kollel or the like. At that point I really had no identity. I didn’t know who I was or what it was that I was going to do.

Adjusting to post-yeshiva life was difficult. I hadn’t realized how much structure having a schedule of shiurim and sedorim (even if I skipped most of them) gave my life. Shacharis, which had been an imperative for my entire yeshiva career (the one thing I NEVER missed) suddenly fell to the back burner. Having no schedule can take away any sense of meaning from your life. Having no schedule, and at the same time, no identity, can be crippling.

My parents were very clear about what I would do next. I’d be starting college in the spring (at the time I didn’t realize that “spring” in college parlance begins in January). I had absolutely no interest, not because I had anything better to do with my time, but because I was so convinced that college was not part of who I was (even though I had no real idea who I was anymore).

After floundering for a few weeks, my father drove me to Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU), and forced me to fill out and submit my application for admission. As it turns out, the day I registered was the last day for new student applications for the following semester (Bashert to my parents, rotten luck to me).

A classic piece of Americana is the vision of a student running out to the mailbox to see if they have received their college acceptance letters, ripping the letter open and jumping for joy at the good news. I have no memory of receiving my acceptance letter. I only know that it came because my parents were going to force me to go to registration.

My father literally took me to campus on registration day. At the time, NEIU still required that all paperwork and registration forms be filled out in person. Registration day was a lot like going to the DMV. It was a full day affair. There were lines everywhere, and it was extremely confusing. The registration process even included a line to tell us which set of lines we had to wait on.

I was not interested in any of this, so my father took me from line to line, collected the appropriate registration forms and documents, filled out those forms and submitted them on my behalf. I wasn’t at all concerned about how long this was taking because, from my perspective, the longer the ordeal the more likely my father would give up or my classes would close.

I remember filling out one questionnaire about my feelings regarding Division 1 athletics for the school. As a huge sports fan, I enthusiastically endorsed that idea. This was rather ironic because as a student leader on campus years later I was a vocal part of the fight to remove NEIU from Division 1.

There wasn’t much talking between my father and me that day. After all, he was quite busy trying to fill out the correct paperwork and submit all of the right forms, and I was just trying to blend in with the walls. My father also picked my classes for me (two history classes because that had been my favorite high school subject) as we walked to the registration waiting area. I still, however, thought I had an ace in the hole. NEIU used arena registration, timed and strictly regulated by numbers. They did not let you into registration until your number was called. This was good luck because, although I had a number, my father, who was not a registered student, did not.

My father did make sure to get me my number as well as to hold on to it (to prevent me from losing it). This would be the longest wait of the day. The final waiting area was in a large social room outside of the registration hall. There was a large digital board, slowly counting up the numbers. I sat there and stared at it for hours, watching the numbers tick by, one at a time, hoping all the while that something would come up that would prevent my number from being called (I kept hoping someone would pull the fire alarm).

As my number drew closer reality began to set in; I wasn’t getting out of this. I would have to go into that registration room, like it or not. As my number appeared on the big digital board, my father literally pushed me toward the rather large gentleman who was guarding the door. It must have been a comical scene, as I leaned all of my (rather significant) weight back toward my shoulders and my father pushed me from behind. For a fleeting moment, after he pushed me through the turnstile, I thought I was free. I could come back to my dad and tell him that my courses were all closed, and that would be the end of my college career.

Part I: The Beginning

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

This wasn’t supposed to happen, especially not to me.  I could give you all the stats: my great-grandfather learned in Radin with the Chofetz Chaim, my grandfathers learned in Slobodka and Novardik, and my father has smicha from Ner Yisroel in Baltimore.  Outside of the brief fantasy (which lasted a lot longer than I care to admit) that I would be the star player who takes the Chicago Bears to the Superbowl, I always saw myself in yeshiva.  It is what I had always planned to do, and I never really contemplated anything else.

I missed all the warning signs, too.  The fact that I really didn’t like to learn, and that that might have some impact on my plans, never crossed my mind.  After all, I was good at it, winning awards and learning competitions in day school (I definitely liked that) and shooting up through the ranks in high school to the highest shiurim.  I also failed to notice that as high school transitioned to beis medrash most of my peers really wanted to learn and didn’t play those silly “hiding from the Rebbe games.”  The truth is learning was something I did because I had to, not something I did because I wanted to or enjoyed it.

That fantasy world came crashing down on me after I seriously injured a high school boy in a football game that took place when I was supposed to be in seder (I guess I didn’t want to give up on that Chicago Bears fantasy so quickly).   Sometimes you just see things more clearly after an event like that, and I suddenly realized that I wasn’t really doing much of anything in yeshiva.  I still see that play, that tackle and the pain from his broken collarbone playing over and over in my mind.

Things were mostly a blur at that point, and even though I have a very good memory, I cannot remember the actual moment at which I decided that it was time to leave.   In all honesty, I probably thought that I’d just leave and start again in another yeshiva, somewhere else.  I also don’t remember the point at which I decided not to even apply for admission to another yeshiva, although the fact that I couldn’t give a decent accounting of what I had learned over the previous two years probably had a lot to do with it.   The football game was on a Sunday.  I was home by Tuesday afternoon with no idea what to do and what my future would hold.

I was only partially aware that for most people a quick exit from yeshiva without even an attempt to transfer someplace else was usually an indication of some serious offense.  While I had been guilty of no such thing, I didn’t feel comfortable telling people that I had never lived up to any of that potential they always thought I had in learning.

I must have been asked scores of times over the first few weeks, “Why aren’t you in yeshiva?”  It was a question I really couldn’t answer for myself, let alone anyone else.  Luckily, my response, “I lost my football scholarship,” made people laugh and walk away without pursuing the question any further.  In retrospect, I probably would have been better off trying to develop a real response to that question.  It may have given me some of the kind of guidance I really needed.

The point was I always had a vision of where I saw myself going.  Yeshiva as far as the eye could see, marriage and kollel and the likelihood that I would spend my life learning in the mornings and teaching history (my favorite high school subject) in a yeshiva’s General Studies department.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/magazine/potpourri/the-beginning-part-1/2011/11/16/

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