Spotlight on Michael W. by Randall S.
“One of the most surprising results, during my time at Beit T’Shuvah, is that I’ve learned a lot about myself through helping others navigate their paths to understanding meaning and recovery,” Michael W. shares in the teen lounge between somersaults and Capoeira kicks.
During his life’s journey that eventually brought him to BTS as a Rabbinical Intern, Michael’s experience was a dichotomous one, with equal focus on scientific pursuits as well as spiritual awakenings. Born in New York City at Bellevue Hospital, Michael was one of two sons born to a Tech company adviser father and a Professional Organizer mother. His childhood was rather normal, involving playing tennis, becoming an Eagle Scout and being an avid reader. But there was an aspect of his early life that was quite spectacular as well. “I was stupendously good at video games. It was the first thing I was really good at,” he relates.
Following high school, Michael enrolled at Cornell College. A liberal arts school, he actually majored in Molecular Biology, but took enough humanities courses that he actually ended up with a Bachelor of Arts degree when he graduated in 2011. While there he also ran the Capoeira Club (a Brazilian Martial Art) and built it into the most active club on campus. Prior to graduation he also spent a month free diving and doing research in the Bahamas. After graduation he took a part-time job in a research lab at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. “I then got a job pumping gas at Charles Allen Shell, the last full-service gas station in Georgia,” he explains.
Following that interesting employment detour, he started a job that would color a large portion of his vocational pursuits during the next several years of his life. “I began tutoring science and became a youth mentor. And I did most of it out of a Starbucks,” he remembers. Michael’s next stop was a summer tour of Kansas in 2012, where he continued his tutoring exploits as well as further study of his beloved Capoeira. Then in the winter and spring of 2013 Michael took an abrupt turn towards that spiritual side mentioned earlier, by going on his Jewish birthright trip to Israel. It wasn’t exactly what he had hoped or expected but following the trip he did have three transformative experiences. “I backpacked through the country, attended a Yeshiva school and then went north to volunteer at a place called Livnot U’Lehibanot, which means ‘to build and to be built’,” he explains.
All three impacted him deeply, but the last stop at Livnot U’Lehibanot truly planted the seed that would later flourish into his rabbinical calling. A more pluralistic view of Judaism was taught there. It was still orthodox but it was open to all. The focus there was to help develop Jewish youth through service and volunteer work. As he lovingly describes, “No one said what I needed to be. I was just able to learn and serve.” Following that momentous and eventful trip, Michael returned to America and made yet another unexpected career choice by becoming, of all things, a hiking guide in the Denali National Forest in Alaska; a location so remote that it was at the end of the final most western road in the Western Hemisphere.
The experience was as beautiful as it was terrible, so he took another job briefly at a fish company in the Kenai Fjords before exiting Alaska altogether, as he puts it, “not because of the cold but because of the darkness.” He then took on a few tutoring jobs before returning to Israel, where he received a grant to expand his martial arts study to include Ju-Jitsu and Krav Maga. Over the next few years Michael took on jobs such as running an Artist Residency, where he was able to convince them to use a $70,000 grant to produce artwork for science education, and a return to his home away from home of Livnot U’Lehibanot talking with and teaching young people about life’s meaning. This final stay at his own personal “house of transformation” would end up strongly influencing and solidifying his passion for service and the pursuit of “meaning” and “understanding.”
Upon his return to America, Michael went back to his other love of science and enrolled at Drexel University, where he began pursuing a Masters Degree in Medical Biochemistry. Due to monetary constraints he was somewhat forced to complete the program in one year. But as he explains, “the entire time I was there I kept thinking of Israel.” So instead of opting for work in Pharmaceutical Medical Sales or as a high-end science education teacher for gifted fifth and sixth graders, he took on a job as a student mentor at the University of Arizona’s Hillel Center. “It was an amazing job. They completely supported my Jewish exploration and were willing to let me innovate,” he shares.
It was now 2018 and Michael was at a crossroads in his educational and professional pursuits. “A career consultant the Hillel Center had hired to assist me on several matters asked what was important to me and I said health, meaning, and life,” Michael recalls. Based on what he knew about Michael’s education and passions the consultant told him he had two possible paths – Rabbinical School or Medical School Research.
As we now know, Michael chose Rabbinical School. And despite some uncertainty as to exactly why he wanted to attend, he was accepted. “I didn’t necessarily want to be a Rabbi. I just wanted to talk about ‘meaning’,” he shares with a Cheshire grin. And besides, he told himself that if he hated it he would just leave. “Turns out I love the work and now I’m here,” he shares. Having specifically requested Beit T’Shuvah he is currently a rabbinical intern at BTS. “It’s been a deeply fulfilling experience,” he says. And as mentioned earlier, the job has helped him grow and evolve just as much as the residents he counsels. He concludes by saying, “It’s more than just helping them manage sobriety and recovery. It’s helping them to become successful human beings. That’s the journey we’re all on in the end.”
Following a full and colorful work and educational life up to this point, Michael has taken all of his varied and interesting experiences and melded them into a clear and focused purpose – to help others find meaning in their lives. And in that effort he has also managed to add further depth and meaning to his own life. As your journey continues at Beit T’Shuvah and beyond we all look forward to your evolution from intern to Rabbi and what additional meaning that transformation will add to your life and all the future lives you touch.
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