Dear Family and Friends:
Every Thursday afternoon I venture out onto the campus of Indiana University. I head over to the Indiana Memorial Union where I camp out at Starbucks for a couple of hours. I have a little table tent sign that I put up which announces that, "The Rabbi is in....ask me anything." I have been holding these Rabbi Hours for a few years now. Sometimes I have no customers and sometimes several students come by. Occasionally a professor will find me.
Rabbi Hours conversations have covered a wide variety of topics. More than one student has come to talk about boyfriend/girlfriend problems. Others have asked my opinion about changing majors, studying abroad, Jewish views on life after death, Last month a professor dropped by to confess that he had been raised Jewish but stopped participating in any Jewish activities. It was more an announcement than a question. I asked if he was interesting in re-connecting with the Jewish community and he replied that he really didn't have the time. "OK.....(long pause), thanks for dropping by. I will be here every Thursday if you want to talk about anything." Not a very good response, I know. He caught me a bit off guard. I hope he comes back sometime so we can really have a conversation.
Lately it seems that more non-Jews come over to talk than Jewish students. There certainly is a curiosity about us mysterious Jews. Some want to hear about Israel, but most ask religious, theological, Jewish practice type questions. Last week I encountered one out of left field. The boy began by explaining that his question had nothing to do with religion or Judaism. I understand that sometimes people need to talk, especially to someone removed from their social circles, someone objective and non-threatening. My sign says ask me anything and he was taking me up on the offer. His question: "how do people deal with fear?" I have learned over the years that sometimes the first question is not THE question. Sometimes there is a question behind the question. I was not quick to offer an answer in this case.
I asked the boy what brought up this question. Was he just thinking about this or had something happened to which he was reacting? He explained that he was the kind of person who took no chances in life. He was doing fine in school, everything was good at home. It was like Paul Simon said in "One Trick Pony," he walked down the middle of the road, slept in the middle of the bed...etc. It seemed to me that perhaps fear wasn't what we were really talking about. It was more about risk.
I told this fellow that everyone has to deal with fear on their own, and that facing one's fears might be best done a little at a time. Small steps before big ones. First the socks and then the shoes. Then I asked if he might really be talking about stepping out of his comfort zone...was risk the fear? He nodded. I asked if he thought he would be able to take a small risk just to see how he felt about it. I explained that I thought that often we learn a lot about ourselves when we do things directed outward with no personal gain intended.
"Have you done anything to help others?" I asked.
"Maybe you have been too absorbed in yourself and your safety. How about considering a small step outward?
"What kind of step?"
"Think about volunteering for a day at a local homeless shelter or food bank? Maybe try it one time and see where that leads. See how you feel about it. See if it doesn't turn your attention outward, broaden you field of vision. It might even feel good." I told him about my experiences working at the Shalom Center here in Bloomington washing dishes.
"I never thought of that. Can I come back and tell you about it, if I can pull it off?"
'I'm here every Thursday and would love to see you again." I hope he takes that small risk and that he's better off for it. I also hope he comes back to Rabbi Hours to let me know. I have the feeling that he will.
Since I began writing this post I received an email from this student. He wrote how much he appreciated our short conversation and that he was thinking of ways to challenge himself over the coming winter break. I think he's going to discover how good it is to step a bit out of the comfort zone, take a little risk, and beat that initial fear. Small steps. That's the ticket.