Voices from the field
A Tale of Two Stories
"Boston to Birthright: A Serendipity Story" by Jonathan Adam Ross
To be clear: I have never been famous. But there was this one time…
I grew up in Memphis, TN and I spent the summer of 1997 in Boston doing a high school theater program at Boston University and the Huntington Theater. One day that summer I was bumming around Boston with some friends, and we ended up in a subway station headed somwehere. When we got downstairs, I noticed a group of cute high school age girls staring at a map with confused faces. Now, I did not at all know my way around Boston’s public transportation system, but I saw an opportunity to impress some cute girls and I decided to offer my assistance. Remarkably, I was able to help them (I think) and as I was saying goodbye, one of the girls stepped forward. She said something like, “That’s a southern accent you’ve got there, not a Boston one.” And I said, “Yep, I’m from Memphis. My name’s Jon Ross.” And she said, “The actor?”
I couldn’t make this up. Truly. She said, “The actor?” and my friends went nuts! To be clear: I have never been famous. But in that moment I felt it! “Yes,” I said, “the actor.” Turns out she had been in town visiting some relatives in Memphis that Spring, and someone had left dinner early to go see a play starring “Jon Ross." She remembered the name all these years later. I have hung out and am friends with Tony winners, Emmy winners, even Oscar winners. I’ve met dignitaries foreign and domestic. But that moment is still the most famous I’ve ever felt. And I’d almost completely forgotten about it. Until now...
Last month I participated in Birthright Israel Fellows as a faculty member. My specialty is training trip leaders to use storytelling as a tool for their work. The second day of the conference, I participated in a round robin ‘speed dating’ activity where we met lots of people quickly. One of the people I met was a woman named Nechamie. We had a lovely, innocuous conversation about our burning passions in life. And that night I got a ping on my phone – it was message from Nechamie. What did it say? “You’re ‘the actor!?” I had been reunited with that very girl from the subway platform 19 years later, and I had been reminded of feeling famous. The amazing bookend is that Nechamie and I met the first time when she was looking for directions and I happened to be there to help guide her. Now she's the guide. She came to this conference to get training for her role as a leader and educator for participants going on Birthright Israel. It has come full circle.
"Lost... And Found" by Nechamie Goldberg
Every story has a problem.
I’d lose my way navigating out of a paper bag.
So throw me with a couple of friends into the Boston Metro station for the first time, pre-GPS, sans map, complicated by wooden construction boards, and the sum of the equation is lost.
Walking in circles and trying to figure out if we’d been there before once or four times.
So we stopped a few guys who seemed to know where they were going and asked for help.
And they helped.
But remember my problem? We got lost... again! Only to be stopped by the same few guys who somehow had known we couldn’t be trusted with directions. They followed us this time… and redirected us.
“That’s so nice of you,” I told the tall skinny dude who was doing most of the talking. “Thank you.”
“Oh, that’s all right… I’m just a good ‘ol Jewish boy from the south….”
Enter my second problem.
I can never resist a good attempt at testing the degrees of separation.
“South?” I asked, “Where from?”
“Memphis. Well, German Town, actually.” Was he daring me to know where that was? Ha.
“Do you know the Kleins, from Chabad?”
“Sure! We know them back from when they lived in Germantown….”
“Cool! I was just there. But I don’t remember meeting you.” Because of course I”d remember, right? “What’s your name?” I asked.
Flashback. Video reel of my mind rewinding back to Passover. A couple is sitting across from me at the table: White haired dad, short haired mom, strong southern accents. Dad had a tendency to skip sounds in his words. My sister was talking to them about their son. Murmurs on an aside – their son was one of the few capable actors in the JCC performance. He was actually good enough to be invited for some kind of program in Boston that summer.
Enter my third problem.
Difficulty keeping my mouth shut.
“Oh my goodness, you’re the actor!”
Suddenly everyone came a little more alive.
We had never met, but in this random act of kindness, a few Jews came together, no longer random, no longer strangers.. and the phone lines buzzed to Memphis with another cool story of a chance encounter between the two people most likely to talk long enough to strangers to find something in common.
On a whim, I applied to be a leader on a Birthright trip.
Then saved my vacation days each year so I could continue leading trips.
I still can't navigate my way out of a paper bag, but there's nothing like connecting with a group of participants in Israel, and discovering the bonds that connect us to another.
And on a whim, again, I applied to Birthright Fellows.
I didn't quite know what to expect – did I make the right decision to join this newest cohort?
I was thoroughly entertained by a guy who was leading all of these icebreakers and storytelling sessions.
It was a guy who never could seem to keep his shoes on.
A guy who spoke as if his mouth were racing to catch up with his brain, skipping sounds in between, but not disguising a slightly Southern twang.
Who was astonishingly bald and bearded and lanky and restless with a boundless energy that I envied.
Who had some fantastic icebreakers that I was rapidly filing away in my mental toolbox.
And I wondered, “What kind of name is "JAR? And why do I feel like I know him? And what’s with the going barefoot all the time?”
So one night at midnight, I checked the staff profiles.
Jon Adam Ross.
Good ‘ol Jewish boy from the south. No wonder he chucked the shoes.
So I messaged him.
His response? “Nechamei! How did we miss that?”
Because it should have been obvious.
Because that is the Birthright story.
That’s the Israel story.
That’s the Jewish story.
Where people meet to find what they might have in common, only to find that we had it all along… if only we’re not too blind to miss the obvious.
Where there is no such thing as a chance encounter.
Where a problem keeping your mouth shut or your shoes on, might just be the key to finding a new connection.
Where no matter how widespread our people may be, we're still a family.
And the story's postscript?
The phone lines to Memphis got busy again.
And I discovered that Jonathan now lives, well, about half an hour from me in New York City.
And if I happen to bump into him as I bumble my circuitous way through Grand Central Station searching for the Metro North or the Farmer's Market, or the nearest exit to the street, that won't be a postscript, it'll be Chapter 3.
Hopefully he's wearing shoes.
- What do you notice about the ways the stories are told?
- What are some similarities and differences?
- What surprise encounters have you experienced recently?
- What everyday stories around your family table might be told in different ways?