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Sink or Swim

 I had that moment when I acknowledged that I wanted to be a shiur counselor and not just a lifeguard

As the fifth child in my family, I took no part in creating our family traditions — I was born into them. That meant I unquestioningly followed the path laid out for me, like calling combined chrein and mayo “mush,” being allergic to wearing black, and working as a lifeguard in Camp Bnos.

I was fine with all, especially the last one. I love to swim, and I have incredible lung capacity, which I developed when I was bored in class by testing how long I could hold my breath. As a camper, I would regularly freak out lifeguards who thought I might be drowning as I lounged under the water, cocooned in the muted sounds and pressures. To become a lifeguard, as was expected, was my pleasure, and I did it with pride.

But you know how life goes — it’s full of fun competing priorities, and the desire for both. I had that moment when I acknowledged that I wanted to be a shiur counselor and not just a lifeguard. For reasons I still don’t understand, my wish was granted (were they that desperate?). For one summer, I would be both lifeguard and shiur counselor. They made it clear that lifeguarding duties came first, which meant I never attended shiur prep, as it took place during first activity.

I was happy to miss it — remember, I’m the one who held my breath to keep from not shooting myself in class (among other diversionary tactics). But that meant I was planning my own lessons, which was tricky. I had a ton to share but wasn’t sure how valid my perspective was; I often found that I came at things from a different angle than my peers. Also, although I had finished high school already, I hadn’t earned a Hebrew diploma (sleeping was another thing I did a lot of in class). Imposter syndrome, here we come.

Of the two gazebos near the basketball courts, the one on the right was my shiur territory. Every day I’d welcome my girls as they ambled in, hot cocoas in hand, and squinted their eyes as they adjusted to the low light. We’d talk hashkafah, life; I don’t think I ever knew what parshah it was that week.

One fine day, Mrs. Yocheved Schiff, the shiur director, popped in to observe my lessons. The stomach-churning, lump-in-throat, light-headed, out-of-body feeling that is anxiety flooded me. We were discussing tefillah, that I remember; what I said, I don’t. I thought I’d be fired the next day now that she’d seen what a fraud I was.

I didn’t get fired. Instead, I got a note at the end of the summer.

Dear Esther,

Lucky campers to have had you as a shiur counselor! Your unique style of presentation that mixes analytical discussion based on Torah evidence certainly gave the girls a brain workout! They loved coming to hear you and it was a pleasure to know they were in good hands!

Hatzlachah rabah.

— Mrs. Schiff

Yes, I still have the note, 15 years later. That’s how long I’ve been teaching for real, too.

I didn’t make a single water rescue at the pool that summer. I was rescued instead.


Esther Kurtz is a frequent contributor to Mishpacha. Her book Rule of Three was recently published by Menucha Publishers.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 868)

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