The decision to do this though was not an easy one. Junior year was tough for many reasons. I like to tell people that turning 21 hit me like a pile of bricks. This year more than any other year I felt I had to grow in order to fulfill all of things I wanted to do. I had to become more independent and more brave.
I think that if there was one emotion I felt the most predominantly this year it was fear. There were so many big decisions I had to make this past year, it was impossible to predict where my life was going. I remember I was talking to my grandmother on the phone one night, frustrated over a tough day and she said to me, “Arielle, you’re letting fear dictate your life. You cannot live like that.”
Those words – like turning 21 – hit me like another pile of bricks. She was right. My grandmother, along with my parents, my professors, my mentors, and my friends – they saw something in me that I couldn’t see. They had faith in me, but at that point, I had started to lose faith in myself.
After coming back from Poland last June and spending the rest of the summer working in Baltimore, I knew in my heart that the summer before my senior year I wanted to go to Europe and learn more about its Jewish life. When the war broke out in Israel last summer and talk of anti-Semitism began to rise, more and more did I feel it to be my own duty to go back to Europe and judge the situation for myself. I was so inspired by what I had seen in Poland last summer, I could not accept the headlines that dictated why the Jews should leave Europe. In my mind, I was on a mission. This mission was big, so I had to plan it. And that’s what I did in my spare time throughout my junior year.
Planning out this journey was as tough as it was fun. It was as challenging as it was rewarding for me. I knew that if I wanted to go to Europe to study Jewish life, I needed to apply for funding. I needed to be on top of my game and be able to pitch an idea to the grant committees of Johns Hopkins University that would be both feasible and original. I have been privileged and honored to be a Woodrow Wilson Undergraduate Research fellow these past two years at Hopkins, but I knew that if I wanted to go everywhere I was interested in going this upcoming summer, I would need to apply for more grant funding – thus I’d have to apply for many more research scholarships.
During my winter vacation, I went on a trip to Israel that was so healthy for me, its hard to put it into words. I’m so grateful that I was able to go on a Birthright-Taglit trip with students from the Johns Hopkins and Towson University Hillel. It was a remarkable ten day trip, filled with laughter, good food, great conversation, and lots of snow (we even built a snow man in Jerusalem). I made many great friends on that trip that I still keep in touch with and the trip helped me reconnect with Zionism and the Jewish state. I had not visited Israel in four years and it was so wonderful to revisit the land that took my heart the first time I came. The trip helped me to forget pressures that were building on me at home and the whole experience put me in a better, more relaxed state.
Then, I needed to figure out where else I was going to go. I knew I had interest in Paris because of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and Paris’s prominent space in the media as the city with the highest growing rate of anti-Semitism. I wanted to better understand this phenomenon and also see its Jewish community for myself. I wanted to know why Jews lived in France and why it was that some were choosing to move out. I wanted to see if the media was portraying French Jewry and society fairly or if some facts were being over or under exaggerated.
Lastly, I decided that I wanted to go back to Poland because after last summer, I felt a very deep connection with the country and its Jewish people. I was so amazed by the Jewish life I saw there, being a witness to its growing and thriving post-Holocaust Jewish community. I had questioned whether I wanted to use research funding to explore a new city instead, perhaps, Prague or Budapest, but rightly so, my research advisor Professor Sundquist suggested that I go back to Poland to research its Jewish community more. Poland as a country has defied the odds. Its Jewish community is back, and in a world that seems to be providing only negative news for Jewish people, the story of Jews in post-Holocaust, post-Communist Poland is a shining light.
With that, I applied to many different research scholarships and was lucky to receive three of them. Using the funding received from the John Koren Scholarship for Holocaust Research and Education of the Johns Hopkins University Jewish Studies Department, the Max Kade Scholarship for Summer Travel of the Johns Hopkins University German Studies Department, the Johns Hopkins Dean’s Undergraduate Research Award, and my remaining funds from the Woodrow Wilson program, I now had enough funding to take the trip of a lifetime and research what mattered the most to me. I was so excited. In my heart, I felt that my research had the possibility to do something – to change people’s perspectives. I still have that feeling, that’s why I’m still here and writing.
Soon enough, it came time to really plan my research project. Junior year came to a close, and after a dramatic end of the year with the Baltimore Riots and pending graduation decisions, I came back to New Jersey as exhausted as I was excited to be back home with my family. As soon as I got home though, I went back to work again as now I had an entire summer of research to plan. I had to buy plane tickets, book hotels, plan itineraries, and write about 1,000 emails to Jewish leaders all over Europe asking them to meet with me and help me recruit research participants. Although about 1 percent of those emails received responses from European Jewish leaders, I received enough feedback to apply and receive support from my university’s Internal Review Board (IRB), whose application process to be a certified “Johns Hopkins researcher” was as strenuous and tedious as applications can be. (Although, the IRB office itself at JHU was very kind to me and answered all of my questions – thanks John Black!)
In end, I received IRB certification and was set to go on that front, but I had another problem – I had no interviews set up. And that was where I was just four days before flying to Warsaw, the first leg of my trip, before the Chief Rabbi of Warsaw Michael Schudrich emailed me back saying he’d be willing to meet with me. So I had one interview set up before I left for Europe. It was better than zero, but my hopes weren’t high.
I’ve always been the kind of girl that likes to have everything planned. I’ve grown up adhering to an order and I always like knowing exactly what was going to come next. This trip to Europe was going to be the craziest thing I ever did because I had NO IDEA what was coming next. I didn’t even know if I was going to have research participants. Here I was, 21 years old about to leave for another continent for two months, and I felt like I had no idea what I was doing.
The weekend before I left for Europe was the same weekend as my younger sister Chelsea’s Bat Mitzvah. The celebration came at just the right time for everyone in my family. It was a beautiful service and my family will have the most wonderful memories from that weekend. Chelsea did the most beautiful job at her service and I couldn't have been a prouder sister.
And that’s when it hit me: she was totally right! I was becoming an adult. My Nana liked to remind me of this fact whenever we spoke on the phone, but it took Suzy to say it that made it sink in. Growing up, I’ll tell you, is not for the weak of heart. It takes a lot of guts; a lot of strength. But we all must go through it. And as I sat there at the hotel the night before I left for my first solo-trekking-European-adventure, I knew that the next day would be the start of my two month adult Bat-Mitzvah – and it would be just the start of a lifelong personal journey.
With that, I kissed my family goodnight and prepared to get on the plane for Europe the very next morning. Before I left for my gate at Newark International Airport, my Mom, who had driven me to the airport, pulled me into her arms and told me that I was like Cheryl Strayed, the writer of the book Wild. She said that this adventure I was about to take would be an amazing one. I nearly started crying again as I gave her one last hug but I pushed away the tears as I made my way toward security and waited there for two hours to board the plane.
The plane took off more than a half an hour late. To say I began to panic is an understatement. I thought that with less than a one hour layover in Germany, I would surely miss my connecting flight to Warsaw. I thought I’d be stuck in Germany. I thought I’d miss the one interview I had managed to plan out. I thought this whole trip was going down the drain. And I hadn’t even made it to Europe yet.
Luckily, with a speedy pilot and a fast-paced airport jog, I made my connecting flight. I got to my hotel, took a nap and prepared for my interview with the Rabbi which luckily went well. I found my way to the Warsaw Nożyk Synagogue and interviewed Rabbi Michael Schudrich who was very kind to give his time. It was an interesting interview that I will write about in a later post, and as the interview ended he looked at me and smiled, saying, “Now go get some sleep!”
I got back to my hotel and cradled myself in my bed unsure of what to do next. I needed dinner. I didn’t know Warsaw at all. There were no places to eat in my immediate neighborhood besides a bakery that sold Greek Salads. I eventually found a restaurant and actually had a nice meal, although the taste of the Polish food was diluted by my sadness of not having anyone to speak to about this journey. Before, I had always had at least one companion when traveling abroad. I had always travelled with a group and things had always been planned out by someone else. I never had to look up directions. I never got to pick anything. This feeling of autonomous travel was completely new to me.
The first night spent in Europe on this trip was by far the hardest. I called my parents on Facetime at 2 am Polish time (in America it was 8 pm) telling them how lonely I was and about I couldn’t fall asleep. I cried and expressed my looming fear about what if this trip didn’t go well. What if all the work I had done prepping before hand was for nothing. My parents calmed me down a bit and suggested I watch some TV, trying to get my mind off of the trip. I took their advice and it worked for a little, but every time I turned out the light and tried falling asleep, I started crying again.
It was at that moment when I decided that I needed to write. I took out my writer’s diary and penned my thoughts. I wrote about my fears and my concerns, my doubts and my lack of hope. I wanted this summer to go well, but I had hit such a low and I didn’t know how to get back up. I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote and I probably listed about 1,000 forms of fear that I had felt throughout the entire day. One of my favorite singers Sia released an album this year called “1,000 Forms of Fear” and sadly, I felt like I was living it.
With that, I took out my diary again and wrote down all the reasons why I came on this trip. I wrote down all of my hopes. I wrote down my dreams for what I would find. I wrote down why I was qualified to take this trip and why I had the experience necessary to be able to handle the journey. I wrote and I felt better. It was time. I could finally relax.
Now obviously I recognize that anxiety and insecurity are natural human instincts when it comes to solo travel. It’s good to be self-aware, but as Mia Thermopolis’s father says in the Princess Diaries, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear. The brave may not live forever, but the cautious do not live at all. From now on you'll be traveling the road between who you think you are and who you can be. The key is to allow yourself to make the journey."
So if there’s one thing I avoid now, more than anything else, its fear itself. I can't let it interfere with my journey. Just like Franklin Roosevelt once said: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
So now let’s just say that fear is a word of the past. No matter how many forms fear shows itself, I’m choosing to remember who I am and what I want to do. This will give me the strength to pull through the next 7 weeks of this journey. In fact, I'm really looking forward to it. As always, thanks so much for reading.
Until next time,