Nikki’s Story: Humans of Judaism

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(1/6) “Grief” 

“Around this time of year, in November of 2013, just before Thanksgiving, my father passed away suddenly. I was stopped in my tracks. I had a few friends around that time who also passed away, and so suddenly I was thrown into a tremendous amount of loss. Losing a parent is truly its own category of grief. It was a time that was indescribably painful.

It is amazing to me how our Jewish religion and culture makes space for grief in such a healthy way. It allows us to recover, following certain steps. We had seven days of shiva, and if it was up to me, I would have stayed in my apartment and not spoken to anyone. But I had to go through this shiva process, and I was surrounded by people who loved me and just wanted to share stories and memories of my father. Then there was shloshim, which felt more like a concentrated grief. The suddenness of my father’s passing came out of left field, and so during shloshim I was able to take the time to process some of that tremendous shock.

In the beginning of the grieving process, I was not so communicative. My process was being curled up in a ball; I needed my own time to absorb things. Shiva and shloshim forced me to not be alone, and to lean on people. As we eased into the aveilus process, the full year of mourning, I didn’t go out in observance of the customs. No weddings, concerts- simply a low profile because I was honoring the loss of my father for that year.

As the shock of it wore off, I began to have an interest in doing something meaningful in his memory. Because I wasn’t going out and being social, I had all this time. I started to think about what I could do.

I have always struggled with being single and being a woman, and evaluating what my contribution to the community could be. There are justifiable reasons to why I feel limited; I would love to be on the PTA, but I don’t have children yet. I would love to be more involved in my shul, but oftentimes a shul is a place for families, and I am single. There really aren’t too many communal spaces I could contribute to, as a single woman. It made my drive to contribute something meaningful, for my Dad, even more challenging.

I was looking for a niche offering that was authentic. Something that I could provide in my own way. Something I could nurture, that would make my father proud.

Then one day, I had an idea.”

(2/6) “Humans”

“Before I lost my Dad, I had done a memorial project for a friend of mine. He too, passed away suddenly. He was fifteen days younger than I. He was a dynamic guy who was always giving to others, and his loss was felt deeply by his friends, family and community members.

Together with my friend Esther, we decided to learn a page of Torah a day in his memory. It gave me a positive outlook to the day, and the headspace to feel like we were making meaning while dealing with loss. But as time went on, we were struggling to keep it going between the Israel/NY time difference and the Yamim Tovim. But the concept was born for me.

I was thinking that it would be cool if there was a space on social media where I could go and read a short dvar torah, as I didn’t have a lot of time to read. I said to myself, ‘When in doubt, create it yourself.’ So I created this little page called ‘Sparks of Judaism’ and took some time to look up short divrei torah and post them. I thought that if I gave comfort to even one person a day, who felt the way I felt when I was going through the loss of my friend, it would be a great zchus.

I had one big humongous fan who wasn’t on Facebook, and that was my Dad. He was an amazing baal tefilah, talmud chacham, community guy. He would share divrei torah with me to post on my page, and I would be able to ask him questions. It was an awesome opportunity for a father and daughter to learn Torah, together.

When he passed away, I knew I had to make something significant to honor his memory, without piggybacking on another memorial. I had seen many Facebook pages that featured street photography and diversity that embraced many cultures and backgrounds. The one problem in my eyes, was that the comments were completely unmoderated, and there was a huge amount of Anti-Semitism running rampant in the comments. Any images of Jews had comments that were toxic Anti-Jew rhetoric. I found it very demoralizing.

I’m not one to criticize someone that does something wrong. I am one who rolls up her sleeves, and shows you how to do it right.

I had found my project.

I decided to create a social media account called, ‘Humans of Judaism.’”

(3/6) “Making space”

“The concept of creating a community of feel-good stories for the Jewish world was something that inspired me. I started the page in June of 2014, and I really had no goals for the project. It was something that was supposed to hold me and carry me over through my grief. Something to keep me busy through this difficult time for myself.

It was a tepid start, where I was asking people who were close to me to participate in being profiled. But the beginning was short and almost immediately the page got picked up. The launching of the page coincided with that very difficult and emotional summer, which started with the kidnapping of Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali- and it ended with Operation Protective Edge. People were looking for spaces that could bring them comfort and inspiration. For many, Humans of Judaism provided some hope and inspirational stories to help them through the challenging events going on in Israel.

As the page following has grown over the last four years, I have committed a tremendous amount of time and energy into providing the content my readers want to see. I do things that are way out of my personal comfort zone, not for myself, but for the page. I like to stay within my own boundaries, but for the page- I am a ‘yes’ machine. Anything I can do, to contribute to the community, l’zecher nishmas my father. I do it also on behalf of my followers, who have been my support and strength and motivation to go outside my comfort zone, and keep moving forward in my life. I am always thinking about what they would be interested in, and what they think is important.

I would be remiss not to mention that though this page is in memory of my father, the strength and support to run this endeavor, comes from my mother. It is a wonderful experience to be able to share the values that I was given in my home growing up. Every style, detail, nuance, and subtlety, comes from the well-balanced and proudly Jewish household of my parents.

My mother is here with me to share her thoughts and love with me every day. I always think about what my father would say if he could see how this memorial to him has manifested. I’m very fortunate because I know what exactly he would have said.

He would have loved it. ”

(4/6) “Just me”

“I know human nature and I work hard because I want Humans of Judaism to be a warm page, where prejudice and discrimination are not welcome.

I am a Modern Orthodox woman and I try hard to bridge the gap and share content that will encourage inclusiveness. I do what I can to choose language and concepts that make Humans of Judaism a universal space.

My favorite misconception is who is behind the page. I keep a low profile because I don’t want the focus to be on me; who I am, what I am doing. I want people to focus on the stories. When it’s relevant, I’m happy to share my face and who I am spending time with and partnering with.

Before I started coming out more into the open on the page, many followers had the misconception that Humans of Judaism was run by a group of guys. I am a proud Jewish woman, and I am always excited to respond to a message that says, “Hey guys,” – “No, no, no. It’s not ‘guys.’ It’s not even ‘girls.’ It’s just ‘girl.’ Just me.” People are always surprised to hear that one woman is behind the page, because they think it’s a whole team of people. But I am a high energy, hard-working, and nurturing woman.

So why couldn’t it be just me?”

(5/6) “Israel”

“When I first started Humans of Judaism, the idea was to provide a space for others that could provide a smile or uplift them. But really, it was I who needed the strength that Humans and the community that has surrounded it have provided.

Maybe my personality is the type that in order to receive support, it needs to come under the guise of doing for others. But thank God for that! Because no matter who you lose, grief is personal. And we all each have our own cocktail of what healing looks like. Feeling this sense of purpose was very meaningful to me. Feeling that people were waiting for a story, or even when someone would say, ‘Thanks. I needed that today.’ That was enough to keep me going.

My parents had purchased burial plots in NY and in Israel. Pretty close to my father’s passing they were sorting out their estate and they were discussing where they wanted to be buried. Most of their family was based in NY, so they thought it might be easier for us all to visit. But my father said he wanted to be buried in Israel, so that his kever being in Israel would encourage his kids to come visit Israel as well.

Ever since my father passed away, I have come to Israel several times to visit his kever. He passed away right before Thanksgiving, so his yartzeit is always Chanukah adjacent. It brings me comfort because Chanukah is all about bringing light to the darkness. Humans of Judaism and the surrounding community have been that for me and for many others. I think it is very appropriate that I should be celebrating my father’s contributions to the world, before and after his passing, on Chanukah.

This year, I decided that five years since his passing is a significant milestone, and I wanted to come to Israel for his yartzeit and to do an independent Humans of Judaism trip. I wanted to meet the people on the ground that I had been working with; some of the photographers that I admire, who have been contributors over the years. I wanted to meet with some of the organizations who I partner with and see their offices and cultures.

I didn’t know what to expect.

Thank God, this trip exceeded my dreams and  expectations. I had a chance to meet on several occasions with Nefesh b’Nefesh, I was able to go visit Yad Vashem and see their incredible museum. I met with Jewish National Fund, and we planted a tree together, in my father’s memory. I was also able to attend the government-sponsored Jewish Media Summit, which offered me the opportunity to go to the home of the President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, and learn from him.

I got to meet other editors, and people who are doing things for the community, for Israel and for the greater good.

The entire trip was an amazing gift, and felt like a culmination of all the meaning I was looking to make.”

(6/6) “Colleagues and Friends”

“I have been introduced to some extraordinary people. Because I get to share the good stuff that is going on in the community, I run into good people. I am so grateful for the direct and authentic relationships with people that I admire and now have the great privilege to call colleagues and friends.

I think because the Humans of Judaism page is all heart, the response has been very genuine and authentic. Baruch Hashem, many pages and organizations that I work with have become partners, and then friends. These Jewish social media pages that are doing important work oftentimes love working with each other, because we all respect the drive to offer meaningful contributions to the Jewish community. We genuinely enjoy each other’s work and respect the effort and love that is put into the messages we put out into the world.

As a social media editor, sometimes it feels like you are on your own island. We create these spaces that are unique to us and what we want to put out into the world. Often we are on our own, carrying the workload, responsibilities, the business ends, the storytelling and the technical work. Meeting others who can understand the work we are doing, that we can trust, and bounce ideas off of and collaborate with, is very meaningful.

Making friends as an adult can be complicated, but making true friendships is very unique. I am so grateful to Humans of Judaism for bringing some real incredible friendships into my life. I think it’s so inspiring to experience friendships with women in my field of media who have been nothing but supportive and loving. My wins are their wins. Their successes are my joy. We cheerlead for each other, encourage each other, help each other – for the niche aspects of our professional work, and the complicated nature of our personal lives.

I think it’s important to share what is typically behind the scenes, which is wonderful and organic examples of women who support other women. It’s amazing to celebrate each other successes and support through the tough times.

This page has given me comfort through my grief. It’s opened up my professional world. It’s shared with me, lifelong friendships that bring me joy.

I will be forever grateful for this incredible experience.”

Shira Lankin Sheps graduated from Hunter College School of Social Work with an MSW in clinical social work. After working in the clinical field, marketing and photojournalism, she decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community. She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience. Shira is the founder, Publisher and CEO of The Layers Project Magazine.