The following is adapted from a speech given as part of the USY Talks series at International Convention 2017 in Chicago, IL.
By Jacob Slavkin
Every Sunday, my family gathers in the kitchen and write on a slip of paper what we are grateful for. We then fold it and put it in the “Slavkin Jar of Gratitude” because we now know that there is always something to be grateful for.
We decided to do this because of the events of 2016 in our family.
My dad was first diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia in 2011. It is a type of leukemia that can’t be cured, only put into remission and in January 2016 it reoccurred. Over the next several months, while my dad was being treated in chemotherapy, I lived in constant fear that he could die.
Two months later, as all of this was happening, things got worse: my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Both of my parents had cancer at the exact same time. What followed was a series of tears and questions; why this would ever happen?
The fear of losing my parents became paralyzing to the point where I was scared to talk to anyone about anything other than superficial stuff. To the outside world, I was me, but on the inside, I was petrified.
Things got even worse when that summer my grandfather passed away and a few months latermy grandma lost her 11 year battle with breast cancer.
I felt paralyzed, I felt afraid of anything and everything. I didn’t want to talk, and when I did, it was about shallow stuff. I felt more alone than I had ever had in my life.
Ironically, just eight days later, an event that would set most of us off, taught me how to face my fears.
On November 9th, Kristalnacht, I am sitting in class where my friend receives a snap. It is a picture of my face, with a swastika drawn over it and captioned, “The good guys don’t always win.”
As soon as I saw it, I froze, I didn’t know what to do, I let my fear get the best of me. Then I closed my eyes and realized that I had three choices: I could have gotten scared and cried, I could have gotten angry, or I could do the right thing.
Make no mistake, this is a hate crime and that monumental thought was replaying in my head. I needed to speak out against this in order to gain freedom from my fear because now my fear threatened to in addition to scaring me with my family, threatened to compromise my Jewish identity.
I confronted him and with the school administration and my dads help, I taught the student who sent the snap the effects of hate crimes. I made him write an apology letter to me, I made him write a five page essay explaining the effects of hate crimes on religions and perform 13 hours of community service.
It was at this point where I realized, that fear was just a concept and you can either spend your life running from your fears or it or face them. My parents were not going anywhere, my grandparents, no matter what, will always be with me, and there wasn’t anything bad that could happen that would effect my love for my family, my friends, and Judaism.
I realized that bottling up my fears was only making them worse. Only when I spoke out and faced my fears head on, did I realize that nothing can affect the ones I love.
USY, if you have a fear, no matter what it is, whether it be saying or doing something, say it or do it.
My dad says to my mom, “Life is short, buy the shoes.” In other words, don’t ever live your life in fear of anything.
Everyone has a fear of something but you can’t let it control you. Embrace your fear, learn from it, and eventually, you can move forward with your life. Loving every second of your life is how you gain freedom from your fear.
If you focus on what you are grateful for, you will appreciate everything that you do ten times more. Be grateful for anything and everything. Don’t hide in fear anything and everything, and LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE.
As my family says, “People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, make them.”