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Recently, I entertained the idea of entering an online essay writing contest. Grand prize was $1000, so why not? I figured. What did I have to lose?

So, I wrote my essay. I gave it to a friend to read and she loved it, showering it with praise. Then, just as I was about to submit it, I had an idea: I should tell my students about this contest and let them enter it. They’re turning into great young writers and this would be a great real-world opportunity for them to flex their muscles!

Feeling not right about “competing” with my students, I decided not to enter. Not that I think I had a real chance, but just in case I actually won, I would feel bad.

But, I have a perfectly good essay on the theme of an “inspirational place.” Should it go to waste? Hell, no.

Here it is: (side note: my student’s essay is so much better than mine and I could not be more proud!)

I was 26 and living in New Jersey working 10 hours a day in a menial job just to pay rent. Just as any American 20-something, I had my degree from a reputable university and had slowly been disillusioned from years of not being able to find a job that both supported me financially and emotionally. In short, I was in a rut.

I needed a change. I was far too young to be turning into someone so cynical. I needed a jump start to kick the engine of my young, vital life back into gear.

When a friend told me she was taking a trip to Israel and invited me to join her, I thought that this was exactly what I needed – some time away in the sun, somewhere I had never been.

A short month later, I found myself in Israel, wide-eyed with wonder. The country seemed magical to me. The colors were extraordinarily vibrant, the sun had warm rays that cradle you from the inside, and the food was fresh and full of flavor. This place was unlike any I had ever been, but the threat of returning to my stalled life was nipping at my heels.

On day four of the trip, I was in Tzfat, the home of Kabbalah (or Jewish mysticism). The weather was terrible that morning. It was raining on and off and a cold wind was whipping through the ancient stone alleyways. Bundled up in a coat, scarf, gloves, and boots, I wandered through the alleys looking at the same old souvenirs directed at tourists. Nothing was standing out to me.

Cold, wet, and looking for a small reprieve, I ducked into a small coffee shop to warm up and think. Although the trip had been a great adventure thus far, I worried that my unfulfilling life was waiting for me back in NJ in just six days. I must have had quite a serious look on my face because the waiter at the coffee shop approached me and asked what I was thinking about “so hard.”

When I told him what was on my mind, he sat down at my small table. This man, not the sage religious-type you expect to get life advice from, explained to me that I am in control of my life, even if it doesn’t appear that way. He told me that when you always live with your eyes on the future, you miss the present. You miss the children playing in the street, full of innocence and joy; you miss the exquisite taste of the fruit as its juices fill your mouth; and most importantly, you miss the moments that could change your life forever. You just have to choose to be aware of the small things, because “who knows what will happen tomorrow?”

He was absolutely right.

Here I was, in this ancient, beautiful city on a mountain side in a historic and vibrant country and all I could think about was the rain and my sadness of returning to my regular life in less than a week. I promised him, and myself, that I would try. “You will be fine,” he said to me with a big smile.

Stepping out of the coffee shop, feeling like I had a renewed sense of self, I looked out over the mountainside and literally saw the fog and mist dissipating. I stood there, watching the fog lift for a solid 10 minutes until all I could see was the beautiful green mountainside and the blue sky. Turning around, the colors of Tzfat came alive! Tzfat is a blue city; sky blue to be exact. The white Jerusalem stone alleys and buildings are adorned with splashes of color and every nook and cranny has something to see and explore: artists’ galleries, synagogues, schools, antiques.  Even the “graffiti” was beautiful art. “How had I not noticed this before?” I wondered to myself. The storm had finally passed over, in more ways than one.

I breathed deeply. The air was so fresh from the rain. This time, as I walked down the alleyways, I noticed the people. People were coming out of their stores to meet their neighbors to see how they managed in the rain. People meeting on the street would stop and embrace before continuing on. Men were humming to themselves as they dusted their shelves. Women were walking with small children skipping next to them. A group of school age boys were kicking a soccer ball on their way home from school. There was happiness and love all around me, and I was lucky enough to get to witness it.

I left Tzfat that day a changed person. I have not been the same since.