Staying empathetic is a challenge during the race for college

I believe myself to be a compassionate person. I say this, of course, with an immense amount of supporting evidence. You know in Westerns, when the cowboys battle it out on the frontier, riding their horses? Well, when a man gets shot and both he and his horse tumble to the ground, I panic for the safety of the horse (I don’t wish the cowboy dead or anything, but he’s fighting of his own volition). The point is, I find myself inherently empathetic.

But there is a new tension between my inherent self, and my impacted self. I am referring to what is simply known as the college process.

My junior year just ended, and instead of experiencing an expected euphoric sense of relief, my summer seems to have been only interim between school sessions. I’ve been picking colleges to apply to and interning so much that even I’m starting to resent the idea of volunteering.

Meeting with private advisers and going to college fairs have provoked in me a desire to go far away and make a fortune in chocolate or something else that doesn’t need a degree. But it is in these panics that I’ve had these revelations: I realized that I have become so consumed by my own college process that I have forgotten about those kids who have absolutely no idea what they should be doing, not because they are apathetic or disinterested, not because they wouldn’t go the extra mile if they had the opportunity, but because they don’t have the opportunity.

Because school-hired college counselors are often overburdened, poorer students aren’t informed about the very basics of getting accepted into a university. Countless numbers of students simply print and fill out an application, not knowing they should have been on yearbook, or worked at a soup kitchen or taken two opposite subjects for the SAT subject tests.

What this ignites in me, these unfair expectations that so many are unaware of, is a new drive to succeed in my own college process. If I can get where I need to be, I can change the very process that got me there (my inherent self). But then again, can I afford to sympathize with other peers (my impacted self)?

In order to be decently competitive among the surplus of determined students — especially this year, when more college applications then ever before will be filed — I cannot think about others. It’s as if to function at all adequately in preparation for college, I must be ruthless, desensitized and immune to any kind of empathy I’m tempted to embrace.

Even if college is a place of unity and togetherness, it has turned high school into a vast arena of self-concern and self-involvement.

It’s even infiltrating my personal life. I go to a friend’s house, I lie on her bed and we take turns venting about why we won’t get accepted into where we’d like, but I listen only so I can be listened to; now the empathy that was once abundant isn’t even active for my friends. Then the next night, I go to MILK, and over sundaes — a perhaps most underrated distraction from all the academic turmoil of the times — I again reflect on newly received report cards that completely alter dreams and expectations. One day’s mail drastically shifts previously planned goals. But that’s just the way it works.

From day to day, from each score to the next score, I mold and bend to be practical and realistic as I try to avoid dimming any dreams that have been long lit by fantasies and college brochures. So even in the brief moments where I guilt-trip myself — because when I look at it relatively, I have it good — it doesn’t take long for me to jump back into the “but what about me?” boat. After all, everyone is competition.

It’s something strange to look down at a standardized answer sheet, and see you, what you have become over the last 17 years, as nothing more than little penciled-in bubbles. It’s something strange to be constantly scanned like a barcode when you’re trying to depart on what should be the most human and growing experience that is life.

Yet, I will not stray from the college process. I will not dismiss what I am beginning to so wholeheartedly resent, because even as I trek through this systematic and mechanical pilgrimage to the glowing beacon that is a university, I am learning something. I am learning what I can handle. I am learning my priorities and my limits and my self-expectations, and how I have trouble dealing with them all, but indeed, I do deal. And I think what I will take most from this process (aside from an acceptance letter), is the vow to never be so self-involved again.

So, here I come young steed, soon my empathy will again be yours for the taking.

Laura Donney this week became a senior at Hamilton High School.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the September issue is Aug. 15; deadline for the October issue is Sept. 15. Send submissions to


We love to play Jewish Geography. Whenever we meet a fellow Jew for the first time, we try to find mutual people or places we might have in common.
I was leading a Jewish history tour to Prague when our group encountered a group of seniors from Israel. We immediately began to play Jewish Geography. It didn’t take long before one woman from Israel said she lived in Los Angeles before making aliyah. Although I didn’t recognize her, she had owned a home just a few blocks away from where I live.
“Which synagogue do you belong to?” she asked.
When I told her, she asked, “Is Rabbi Muskin still the rabbi?”
Not wanting to reveal my identity, I said, “I hope so.”
An hour latter, we met the group from Israel a second time. As soon as the lady from Los Angeles saw me, she came running over and said, “I feel so foolish and rude. I didn’t ask you the most important question. What is your name?”
Every so often, it happens to each of us. We fail to ask the most important question, we fail to prioritize, and as a result, we run the risk of embarrassing ourselves.
Prioritizing, the ability to determine what needs to be asked and said first, actually takes center stage in this week’s Torah portion.
The Torah states that Moses died betzem hayom hazeh, or at midday (Deuteronomy 32:48). Rashi, the classical medieval commentator, notes that on two other occasions the Torah uses this expression, and in each one priorities seem to be involved.
The first event that occurred at high noon concerns Noah and the deluge. Rashi explains that the flood happened at midday because the people would not listen to Noah. When he told them that God was ready to destroy the world because they refused to mend their ways, they scoffed and declared instead that they would not allow anyone to enter the ark. God responded, “Watch and see who is in charge. The flood will happen right in the middle of the day, and I dare you to try to stop Noah.”
The second place in the Torah that high noon involved priorities involved the Egyptians who thought their protests could stop the Exodus. God responded, “Behold, I shall take them out at midday and whoever has the power to object, let him come and object.”
In this week’s Torah portion, we encounter misplaced priorities again in the description of Moses’ death. The Children of Israel proclaimed, “If we perceive that Moses is about to die, we will not let him.”
Rashi, quoting the Midrash, explained this unusual reaction because they said, “The man who took us out of Egypt, and parted the sea for us, and brought down the manna for us, and made the pheasants fly to us, and brought up the well for us, and gave us the Torah, we will not let him die. The Holy One, blessed be He, said, ‘Behold, I will take him in at midday…'”
The only problem is the absurdity to think that anyone has the power to stop the Angel of Death. Israeli Torah scholar Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz suggested that this demonstrates the power of collective prayer. When the Children of Israel gather and pray fervently, they can even overpower the Angel of Death.
This whole theory, however, didn’t work. Moses died. What happened to the power of Israel’s prayer? The 19th century commentator The Kli Hemda notes that the problem rests in the order of priorities of the Jewish people. We told God that Moses was great because he took us out of Egypt, parted the sea, brought us the manna, gave us fowl to eat and brought up the well of water. Only after all of this did we note that he also gave us the Torah. Our priorities were skewed.
We first and foremost saw Moses as the supplier of the good life. It was only a second thought that we remembered the Torah. When our priorities are so twisted, when we can’t appreciate the real contribution of Moses, then our prayers are ineffective.
What a powerful lesson that every one must learn:

Both the nation and the individual must first set priorities straight if we ever hope to receive God’s blessings.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

A Critical Question

One of the most important questions we need to ask ourselves, particularly as we approach Yom Kippur, is: How will we be remembered?

An incident in the life of Alfred Nobel illustrates how he was unexpectedly forced to face that important question. It is reported that when Nobel’s brother died, the obituary column had a terrible error. Instead of eulogizing Alfred’s brother, the paper eulogized him.

The eulogy indicated the following: Alfred Nobel, the creator of dynamite, one of the most destructive forces known to humanity, died yesterday a wealthy man.

Upon reading his own obituary and seeing how he was to be remembered, he decided to make a change in his life. He took some of the profits from his creation of dynamite and used it for an altruistic purpose.

Today we remember him for the good he achieved in his life.

Alfred Nobel created the Nobel Prize.

The important question we should each ask ourselves during the High Holidays is: How will I be remembered if, God forbid, my life ended today?

If you are not happy with the answer, take the gift of transformation that Yom Kippur offers. Modify the way you speak, the use of your spare time, your charitable habits or the way you vent anger. If you are not treating those in your household or those with whom you work with dignity, pledge to change that.

But begin the work soon for life is fleeting.

Rabbi Harold Kushner writes of a psychiatrist who suggests that we could probably put the same inscription on 90 percent of all tombstones in the cemetery, “I should have loved them more while I could.”

We all make the mistake. Our priorities become confused and we often let the immediate desires drive away the important ones.

Yom Kippur is our spiritual wake-up call. It reminds us that not only our lives, but the lives of those dearest to us will some day end. If we take that seriously, then we should more frequently say, “I love you” to our wife or husband, to our father or mother, to our children, and to our friends.

We should also seek forgiveness … a difficult task for most of us. Many see apologizing as a sign of weakness. We cannot quite bring ourselves to admit fault to a co-worker, a friend, a parent, a spouse or our children.

Yet, apologizing is a courageous act. Which takes greater strength of character, ignoring a wrong or confronting it? Ask yourself, if someone came to ask your forgiveness, would you not gain respect for such a person?

When a bone is broken in our body one would think that the point of fracture would, after healing, be the weakest part of that bone. Yet the place where the bone healed, in fact, becomes its strongest part.

Confronting those fractured parts of our lives and ourselves makes us stronger as well.

Here, too, however, there is a price for waiting too long.

The Torah recounts the lives of twin brothers, Jacob and Esau, who have a terrible argument and become alienated from one another. When the day comes that the brothers must face each other for the first time in many years, the Torah says that Esau falls on Jacob’s neck and they both cry. But the Torah does not say why they cry.

One explanation that I find particularly moving is that the twin brothers looked into one another’s face and each saw how the other had aged. This moment was a reflection of the many years that had passed. Further, as twins, they realized that in each other’s eyes they saw a mirror image of themselves. They recognized the wasted years, born of the anger, which consumed them, and they cried for the loss of time.

We can, of course, change our lives and ask forgiveness any day of the year. If, however, you are reading this in the hours before Yom Kippur, think of this sacred day as an opportunity to look into your soul and affirm that life is beautiful, inherently optimistic, yet sometimes fragile. And though our lives seem to pass swiftly, it does not preclude each of us to be forgiven and to forgive while we are here.

What an empty feeling to realize too late that there were words that needed to be said that were never spoken. If you have someone in your life with whom you are estranged — and would like to reconcile — take the step.

Then, when the shofar sounds at the end of Yom Kippur, you will leave your synagogue with a full heart, with a soul that has been refreshed and with a renewed vigor to begin the New Year, grateful to God for one of the greatest of all gifts … the gift of life.

David Woznica is rabbi of Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles. He can be reached at


The List


The List has taken over. If you are male, you may not be aware of this, but if you are female, you probably already have one.

You show me a single woman looking for love, and I’ll show you a girl with a detailed and specific written list of qualities she’s looking for in a mate.

Check our journals, check our spiral notebooks, check our online profiles, we have them.

I don’t know exactly when this happened, I can’t pinpoint the genesis of this idea, but within the last five years The List has become a cornerstone of the female dating process. If you didn’t read it in a book, some therapist encouraged you to make one. Or a group of well-meaning friends made you scavenge an old envelope out of your purse and write on the back: educated, tall, good job, likes dogs, on good terms with his mother, nice feet, sense of humor, blah blah blah.

Scattered across every dating and love advice column on the Internet — some written by respected therapists, others by unemployed former folk dancers blogging from their local public library — is some form of the following advice: “Manifest your divinely selected mate by making a list of the qualities you want.”

From JDate to eHarmony, most online matchmaking sites encourage some form of The List, and this may be how the concept took root.

It’s the JDate-ization of courtship. If I can select for “doctors, living in Los Angeles, over 6 feet, no kids,” press “enter” and get 19 matches, is the act of list-making not reinforced? And of course, there are the urban legends, the stories of The List conjuring a soul mate. These stories are whispered over breakfast, shared in great detail in the pages of self-help books. The List is considered a powerful spiritual offering, a rain dance that makes it rain men, hallelujah.

I would be the first to mock The List if not for this: a therapist (one of the team I keep on call) suggested I make one about four years ago. I set about the task that night, listing about 30 qualities ranging from “Ivy League educated” to “nice thumbs.” My assignment was to include everything, major and silly, that I wanted, some things negotiable, others not.

Three days later, I met a successful television writer we’ll call Listy.

The sudden appearance of Listy seemed miraculous, almost creepy. He was every single thing on the list. We dated for 10 months and Listy was great, other than the fact that by the end of the relationship I was trying to figure out what combination of prescription drugs would kill me the fastest. It was only when I stumbled on that list months after we broke up that I realized I had left something off: Kind. Oops.

So I can’t ridicule The List. In fact, I fear its power.

When I told my friend this story she had an eerily similar experience, only she had forgotten to include “heterosexual.” She met and dated the perfect guy, only he was also looking for the perfect guy.

“Working with the list makes you aware and alert,” writes one relationship counselor. This may true, but so does drinking a six-pack of Red Bull.

Again, I’m not against knowing what you want, clarifying priorities; it just seems to have fundamentally altered the human mating dance, putting our brains on “sort” when they could be on “receive.”

I understand “positive visualization,” the notion that putting your desires out into the universe can make them manifest, I just wonder if we’re all qualified to make our own lists. I certainly wasn’t. Whatever you call the power greater than yourself on the days you believe in one — Spirit, God, the Universe, The Force, Good Orderly Direction — perhaps It, He, She knows better than we do.

This may come as a surprise, but I’m no expert in Jewish liturgy. Still, my years in Hebrew school weren’t a total waste. If I recall, “Avinu Malkeinu” means, “Our Father, Our King” not “Our Burger King.”

You can’t just pull up to the divine drive-through and place an order, “Hold the pickles, extra sauce, no ice in the Diet Coke and please make him a blond who reads Robert Frost and can salsa dance.”

It could be that giving orders to the universe is like telling a masterful chef exactly what to put in your soup. Maybe it’s best to just shut up and taste what you get served.

This is all easy for me to say, because my current boyfriend is nothing like my list — and way better.

Teresa Strasser is a TV host and Emmy Award-winning writer. She’s on the Web at


Congress Remains Pro-Israel

Pro-Israel activists say they are confident their legislative priorities will be able to get through the new Congress, which is now under Republican control. In the final election returns, which came early Wednesday morning, a predominance of pro-Israel lawmakers retained their seats, and several new faces emerged, many of whom pro-Israel officials called promising.

The new Congress will take office at a critical time in U.S.-Israel relations, with Israel entering a heated election campaign, prospects for peace with the Palestinians at a standstill and a U.S.-led war against Iraq looming. The congressional approach to Israel and the Middle East is a significant component in those relations.

While American Jewish leaders were closely watching the poll results, there was not much concern: Officials had said they were comfortable with the candidates from both major parties in most of the congressional races.

"Everyone seems to be very good nowadays," said Morris Amitay, a veteran Jewish activist who is treasurer of the pro-Israel Washington PAC.

While the Jewish community is predominantly Democratic, Jewish groups have had much success getting legislation passed in a Republican House. Prior to the election, many said they believed they would have success no matter which party controls the Senate.

Support for Israel "is a bipartisan issue," one American Jewish leader said. "Congress is overwhelmingly pro-Israel."

Another senior pro-Israel official said his organization had spoken during the campaign season to virtually all the nonincumbent candidates who won Tuesday, and that they expected the 108th Congress to be even more supportive of Israel than the outgoing body.

Many of the candidates that the pro-Israel community targeted for defeat were eliminated in primaries or were not seeking re-election.

Republican Norm Coleman, who narrowly defeated his last-minute Democratic challenger, former Vice President Walter Mondale, in Minnesota, was opposed by the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations as a possible Bush administration appointee two years ago because he is a "ardent supporter of Israel."

The former Jewish mayor of St. Paul, he received strong support — financial backing from the Republican Jewish Coalition and its supporters.

"He’s a passionate, Jewish representative," Brooks said.

Among other Senate results of note:

  • Rep. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) defeated the incumbent Democrat, Sen. Max Cleland, in Georgia. Chambliss had criticized Cleland for being reluctant to speak out against comments made by ousted Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) that were deemed anti-Semitic and anti-Israel. Chambliss is considered to have a strong record in the House, stemming from his work as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism.
  • Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) will fill the seat of Sen. Strom Thurmond, the retiring senior senator from South Carolina, having defeated his Democratic challenger, Alex Sanders. Graham spoke last month at the Christian Coalition’s rally for Israel in Washington, and is believed to be a strong supporter of the Jewish state.

The 108th Congress will get down to work in early January as both Israel and the Palestinians prepare for elections of their own, and the possibility of U.S. military action against Iraq is still an unknown. Against this backdrop, pro-Israel advocates say their agenda for the next two years will focus on legislation that did not get passed this year. Those measures include:

  • An additional $200 million in aid to Israel is expected to be tackled by the lame-duck Congress later this month. That will be wrapped into the foreign aid bill, which includes $3 billion in economic and military aid for Israel.
  • The Palestinian reform bill, dubbed the Arafat Accountability Act, would deny visas to Palestinian Authority officials, restrict travel of Palestinian officials and freeze the American assets of Palestinian leaders.
  • The Syria Accountability Act would ban military and dual-use exports to Syria, and ban financial assistance to U.S. businesses that invest in Syria.

Jewish officials say a Republican majority in Congress could move the flow of legislation faster than in a divided body where partisan issues are paramount.

However, the Republican-led House of Representatives still has had to battle with the White House on several bills related to the Middle East, with the Bush administration complaining that the bills tie its hands and make it harder to implement foreign policy. But House Republicans have been able to prevail, pushing through a pro-Israel resolution last spring that called on the United States to provide additional aid to Israel and condemning "the ongoing support of terror" by Arafat and other Palestinian leaders.

Other variables, such as the changing makeup of the Israeli government after the Labor Party’s departure last week and upcoming Israeli elections, could affect congressional action on the Middle East.

U.S. action against Iraq could change things as well. If the United States attacks Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s regime, lawmakers are expected to rally around the flag in support of the president. This could push other Middle East issues off the agenda and make it difficult for Jewish groups to pursue legislation. However, Congress would be likely to offer strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself if attacked by Iraq in the course of a U.S.-led war.

Congressional officials say the Middle East portfolio is expected to come under the auspices of the chairman of the full committee, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.). If the Middle East subcommittee remains separate, possible Republican chairpersons include Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a strong Israel backer, and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), a lawmaker who has frequently voted against pro-Israel resolutions and foreign aid.