Returning Home | D’varim HaMakom: The JOFEE Fellows Blog

by Nicole Cruz, Peninsula JCC, Bay Area, CA

Parashat Vayishlach

Editor’s Note: Welcome to D’varim HaMakom: The JOFEE Fellows Blog! Most weeks throughout the year, you’ll be hearing from the JOFEE Fellows: reflections on their experiences, successful programs they’ve planned and implemented, gleanings from the field, and connections to the weekly Torah portion and what they’ve learned from their experiences with place in their host communities for the year. Views expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily represent Hazon. Be sure to check back weekly! 

P.S. Interested in being or hosting a JOFEE Fellow? Applications for prospective fellows will continue to be reviewed as positions are available.


JOFEE Fellows Nicole Cruz and Michael Farade complete the high ropes course during the Outward Bound portion of the JOFEE training in May 2016; Photo Josh Kleymeyer

This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, centers on Jacob’s return to the Holy Land and his encounter with his estranged brother Esau who he has not seen in over 20 years. The night prior to their meeting, Jacob wrestles with a ‘man’ until day break. The next morning, battered from his nighttime confrontation, Jacob and Esau meet and peacefully part ways.

While this Torah portion contains many important themes (reconciliation, conflict, forgiveness), the theme of returning home, and the challenges that often accompany this journey, really resonate with me. Much of the commentary I’ve read on this Torah portion suggests that Jacob is wrestling with the spirit of Esau, as he prepares to meet him the next day. I can’t help but wonder if he is really wrestling with Esau, or himself.  Whenever we embark a journey, whether it’s returning home or elsewhere, we are faced with challenges. While these challenges can be physical obstacles we need to overcome, they can also be internal and manifest in our minds.

After our JOFEE fellowship training at Isabella Friedman, I was both excited and terrified to return home to my host site in the Bay Area, the Peninsula Jewish Community Center (PJCC). For three weeks, I had immersed myself in the JOFEE world and pushed myself outside my comfort zone to new heights (literally!). I was thrilled with the prospect of starting JOFEE programming at the PJCC, and at the same time scared. I was worried that I would fail to maintain the skills and knowledge I had gained during the training. Or that I would create JOFEE programs for families that no one would attend because of lack of interest. I was overcome with doubts and fear of what might happen. 

Since returning from my training at Isabella Friedman, I’m proud to say that JOFEE programming is flourishing at the PJCC. Through my JOFEE Fellowship, I’ve created a Jewish Family Wellness program which infuses wellness programs geared towards families with Jewish wisdom. For example, last month I led a Pickling and Fermenting Workshop for Families in which families learned how to pickle and the Jewish connection to this tradition.

A family makes ‘quick’ pickles at the Pickling & Fermenting Workshop for Families; Photo: Nicole Cruz 

In addition, I am leading family-friendly recipe demonstrations at our on-site Farmer’s Market. Families are able to learn more about the importance of eating seasonal produce, as well as finding kid-friendly recipes that their children can help prepare.


Farmer’s Market Demonstration- How to Make Kale Chips; Photo: Tami Strang

I see a bright future for our Jewish Family Wellness program, and overall JOFEE programming at the PJCC. In Spring 2017 I will be co-hosting a family nature walk with Tzachi Flat, a JOFEE fellow at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, a mere 20 minutes from my host site. I am also planning an environmental education class as a part of our after school youth enrichment program in April 2017. I am thrilled I am able to transfer my JOFEE learning into meaningful experiences for youth and their families.

I periodically think back on how apprehensive I was over my return to the Bay Area from training. I was wrestling with the challenges I would need to face if I was to successfully implement JOFEE at my host site, most of which stemmed from my own fear and self-doubt. As I reflect on my past experiences, I wonder what inner thoughts Jacob struggled with when he fought the spirit. Was it the guilt of tricking Esau out of his birthright? Or waiting twenty years to return home? Regardless of what the inner struggle is, the end goal is perseverance. Similar to how Jacob survived the night with the spirit and his encounter with his brother, I’ve surpassed my obstacles and have created a comprehensive set of JOFEE programs. I’m grateful for my support system, both through the JOFEE Fellowship at Hazon and at the PJCC, who have helped me to learn and develop the skills necessary to create JOFEE programs and overcome any obstacles I encounter. As our JOFEE programs continue to grow, I know there will be additional challenges we will need to address but I am confident I have the support and skills to help the programs flourish. 

Nicole Cruz is the Youth & Family Programs Manager at the Peninsula Jewish Community Center (PJCC) in the Bay Area. Nicole is thrilled to be a part of the first JOFEE cohort and share her JOFEE knowledge to the youth and families at the PJCC. Read her full bio here