“We are never the victims of circumstance”: the secret to Jewish success and survival throughout the ages

Last week, I was fortunate to be present at Moriah’s first official TEDx Youth event, organised by members of our Year 12 Student Leadership Council with support from some of our staff.

I have seen many TEDx talks on YouTube, and to actually stand on the red circular carpet with the famous TEDx letters behind me while I opened with a D’var Torah was indeed very special. The theme for the event was ‘Mind, Body, Voice’, and I was inspired by the personal accounts the presenters chose to share, in which they expressed their stories of triumph in the face of despair.

Each of the TEDx Youth presenters, in overcoming their own personal setbacks and challenges, made decisions that now allow them to support others who may be experiencing similar problems. Each of them has managed to convert his/her personal tribulations into success stories that now serve to inspire others.

Our TEDx Youth presenters were so inspiring.

It would have been easy for the presenters to consider themselves victims, or blame themselves for their misfortunes. Having survived over 2,000 years of persecution, the Jewish people could also be easily regarded as the experts in victimhood. Whether it was the Roman conquest, the Spanish inquisition, the pogroms of Eastern Europe, the Nazi genocide, multiple Arab invasions, or Hamas terror, we have plenty of oppressors to blame for our suffering.

However, the Jewish approach to suffering offers a different attitude to the custom of placing blame and feeling like a victim. In fact, it may hold the secret to Jewish success and survival throughout the ages, and it can offer vital tools to help empower those who continue to be oppressed.

The Jewish approach to overcoming adversity, is to take responsibility. We believe that we are never the victims of circumstance. On the contrary, everything happens for a reason and all challenges in life come to teach us a lesson in order to help us to improve ourselves and, by doing so, improve the lives of others. This message was reinforced through the stories told by each of the presenters.

Inspiring stories of triumph over adversity

Drew Harrisberg, a young man, living a healthy, well-balanced life was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and, instead of trying to figure out how or why this happened, decided to focus on managing his diabetes and create a five-pillar program that teaches everyone (not just those with diabetes) how to thrive and live a much happier and healthier life.

Listening to Nas Campanella, a young, blind newsreader, share her story of determination, perseverance and tenacity, was inspirational. She never allowed her disability to get in the way of her dream to become a journalist and newsreader. She, too, uses her life lessons to mentor and support people with disabilities and mental illness.

The third presenter, Ben Johnston, in his journey to play professional football, confronted mental health issues which forced him to re-evaluate his life and change direction. Ben is now committed to improving the number of indigenous students attending university and is a prominent figure in the ACT sporting community.

The Final presenter, Megan Donnell, whose children suffer from Sanfilippo, a rare and fatal genetic childhood disease, explained the impact their diagnoses had on her life and the lives of her family. Megan founded and is the Executive Director of the Sanfilippo Children’s Foundation, which has raised millions of dollars for medical research initiatives to address this disorder.

The theme of triumph over adversity continued into our College awards assembly on Friday last week, when a group of Year 8 students were celebrated for raising a substantial amount of money for Running for Premature Babies – an organisation that provides lifesaving hospital equipment for babies born prematurely.

Sophie Smith personally thanked the boys who raised money for her charity, Running for Premature Babies.

Sophie Smith, the founder of Running for Premature Babies, attended our assembly to personally thank the boys for their efforts and to share her personal story with our students. After losing her prematurely born triplets due to complications after birth in 2006, Sophie, much like our TEDx presenters, chose to turn her heartache into something positive. To date, her organisation has raised over $3 million for lifesaving neonatal equipment, funded research to help solve the many mysteries of premature birth, and helped to advance the care of premature babies. 

10 strategies for overcoming challenges

Rather than looking for excuses or blaming ourselves when things go wrong, below are 10 strategies for overcoming challenges1 – big or small.

  1. Make a game plan. Try and focus especially on the next step you will take to address your issue. Even if you have no idea how you will overcome the challenge, remain positive that things will work out and try and use the challenge as an opportunity to grow and become a better person (as did each of the presenters).
  2. Keep your cool. Be patient. Panic will only drain you physically and emotionally. Be reasonable, remain persistent and calm.
  3. Forgive. We often blame others or ourselves for our problems; this only exacerbates our pain and distracts us from addressing the issue. The question is not, “Who can I blame?” The question is, “How can I grow and overcome this?”
  4. Avoid dwelling on your problems. Often what wears us down most is not the actual problem, but the constant thinking about it. Have a set time when you think about and update your game plan. The rest of the time try to keep your mind elsewhere.
  5. Live life. Don’t put your life on hold just because you’re struggling in one area. Give yourself permission to be happy and enjoy life, as best you can. Throughout the day, look for reasons to smile or laugh. Having a slight smile on your face, even for no reason, can shift your mindset to a more positive one.
  6. Help others. Even if your life is full of struggles, see how you can be of service to other people. We’re all in this together; by assisting each other, we will get through our difficulties.
  7. Focus on what’s going right. When dealing with an issue, our tendency is to focus on the difficulty. Instead, make sure to notice and appreciate your blessings.
  8. Realise everyone has difficulties. Often, we compare our lives to others, especially the external, public version. We are only seeing a small part of the overall picture. If we knew all their issues, psychological problems or family difficulties, we may well prefer our own situations, even if they come with challenges.
  9. Take care of yourself. Many times, we become so consumed with our difficulties that we neglect our health, which only makes matters worse. Eat nutritious meals and get adequate sleep and exercise.
  10. Reach out for support. Family members, school psychologists, Heads of Houses, mentor teachers can all provide much needed support. Don’t be ashamed; everyone needs help at some point.

A key tenet of Judaism is the obligation to support not only those who are less fortunate, but anyone who may need some help, be it emotional, physical, social or financial. The Talmud teaches us that we are all responsible for each other “Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh” (Shevuot 39a). It is not only important that we teach this to our students, we too need to make sure we strive to achieve this ideal as well.

ronnengraumanAbout the author

Ronnen Grauman is the Acting Head of Jewish Life and Learning at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.


1 Yaakov Weiland – 10 Ways to Tackle your Challenges

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