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Star Gazer

As told to Leah Gebber

Diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer at 18, she’s made it her mission to light up the lives of everyone she meets

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

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SLOW AND STEADY Over the next year, I took on observance slowly. I’d go to the mall on Shabbos with my friends, but I wouldn’t buy anything. Then, slowly, I stopped going

T he stars shone bright over Willow Pond Farm where I grew up, deep in the Canadian countryside. My chores included crushing the grapes and tending to the ducks, goats, and sheep. We weren’t religious, but along with fresh air and home-grown veggies, we were nourished with strong values: Always try your best. Pick up trash, even if it’s not yours. Do what you can to bring good to the world. We didn’t know about most of the Jewish festivals, but we did know about Chanukah, Yom Kippur, and Succos — and boy, were those exciting. My parents’ positive feelings flowed down to us. When I was 11, country mouse became town mouse.

Culture shock.

We knew nothing of makeup or brand names, subways or rock stars. We learned pretty fast. The adjustment was very difficult, and I begged my parents to move me to a public school with Jewish kids, so at least I’d have a point of connection.

I soon found myself with a bunch of kids whose idea of recreation included drink and drugs. I wrestled with my identity and found that I cared passionately about conservation and environmental issues. I was also determined to crack the “in” crowd. I befriended whoever was cool, and even if my parents didn’t like my choices, they still supported me. They objected just once — we’d had a Pesach Seder and I went to fix my makeup before meeting a friend. “It’s Pesach — tonight we’re celebrating Judaism!” my mom said.

“I already did the Jewish thing,” I retorted, heading out the door. I’m outgoing and friendly and it didn’t take long for me to win the popularity contest. One night, a group of us were hanging out by a railroad. We were drinking and laughing, and all of a sudden, I looked up. An endless skyscape of stars looked down on me. I glanced at my friends and thought: Is this really it? Is this what it’s all about? I was blessed. Some people run after adoration and popularity for decades. I was just a teen when I realized how empty it was.

When I returned home and discussed it with my mom, she gave me a book on inner peace. I joined a class on meditation and became a follower of a Buddhist monk who spreads the ideas of mindfulness. It was the first time I was exposed to the idea of working on one's character. I was dedicated to making the world a better place, but I’d never looked inside before. I learned self-discipline, slowly became aware of my bad character traits, and took steps to curb my anger. I went on retreats that took place in utter silence.

Paradoxically, it was probably the best preparation for living an observant life. Meditation taught me to concentrate when I daven. Mindfulness was perfect preparation for making brachos. And the idea that one’s inner world is central led me to adopt a modest style of dress. My interest in spirituality was growing, but I didn’t want to know about G-d. If there was a G-d, I reasoned, He allows bad things to happen and I want nothing to do with Him.

 

When we moved to the city, my father opened a second-hand bookstore named Willow Books. One afternoon, I picked up Rabbi David Aaron’s Living a Joyous Life. On the chapter about Shabbos, he talks about a personal God Who has a loving connection with each of His creations. It was a radical idea. I was intrigued enough to join an NCSY class once a week. My sister had been going for two years but I hadn’t been interested. The classes were engaging, but it was my teachers who made the deepest impression. We’d been raised with strong values, but I had no idea how to make them happen. My teachers — kind, humble, insightful — obviously did.

The most formative conversation I had at that time took place on a shabbaton. I’d been reading a book about other faiths and was ready for a debate. I had an hour-long, intense discussion with a rabbi, and then he asked me a question: “Who are you?”

“I’m a happy person,” I answered.

“That describes your state of being, but not your essence.”

I tried on a few answers for size, but eventually came to the conclusion: “I’m a created being.” All kinds of things tumbled from that statement. If I’m a created being, some Being must have created me. And that Being must have created me for a purpose.

It was like a storm had broken: Was I then obligated to live as a religious Jew? Oh. My. G-d…

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