5 Tips To Navigate High School

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A LETTER TO MY 14 YR. OLD SELF

Math, Science, History, English, Art, AP's, Sports, Dances - For most middle & high school students the new year begins this week - equal amounts excitement and stress. Here are 5 tips I hope will help you navigate your busy school life, and none of them have to do with getting good grades. These may not apply to all of you, but they all apply to my 9th grade self :)

1) Fun vs. Happiness
It's okay to call parties, risk taking and wild experiences fun & exciting, just as long as you don’t expect to achieve happiness through them. Happiness isn’t acquired through one event or person. It's more subtle. 

Happiness is what’s left when the party’s over. True happiness isn't a bunch of people laughing and yelling at a party, it's an inner contentment that comes naturally as a byproduct of living a meaningful life. It's knowing that you're going in the right direction on the long road to actualizing your potential. So have a good time, but just remember that it's the little things - the good moments you work for and that take time to get - that matter most in the long run.

2) Friends & Family
It may seem obvious, but when choosing your friends try and hang with real people who actually care about you (I’m not talking about the people you nod to in the hall or who you wish you were friends with). Real friends value you for who you are.

My primary ambition in school was making friends with popular people and becoming loved by everyone. But these “friends” were fickle and their friendship came at a cost. It’s crazy how we might agonize over the opinion of someone who will never speak to you after high school ends and doesn’t really care about you now either, all the while ignoring our parents and loved ones who, while we may find annoying, deeply care about our happiness. Always remember who really worries about your wellbeing, and that those who do are precious. Be good to them. Express that love openly. Who knows how long we will have the fortune of being able to do so?

3) Give Back
As we all know, school can be super competitive and completely consuming. It's easy to spend all of your time focusing only on homework and after school activities (this includes Netflix and Snapchat by the way), but I encourage you to find a bit of time in your schedule to give to those less fortunate. Choose any project or club that speaks to you, or create your own.

Helping those in need puts life into perspective. Getting into USC or UCSC seems less of an awful dilemma when you realize that many people don't have the opportunity to enjoy the most basic comforts of life, let alone a college experience. It's easier to get depressed when we're self absorbed. If life is only about me, so if things aren't going perfectly, what's the point? But what if life's not only about what you need, but more importantly about what you're needed for?

Giving back is more than a volunteer event or two - it's a mentality. We have endless opportunities right in front of us everyday: Help someone at school who struggles in class or in making friends. Even a quick smile can be amazingly powerful for someone. We have no idea the power that adding positivity in another's life can have. A nice comment on someone's Instagram can brighten their day and remind them that they aren't alone.

4) Life Is Fragile & Precious
I've watched young friends and acquaintances die from drug overdoses, suicide, and other premature ways. Life is fragile, especially at this age. All I thought about in high school was the immediate, that my wellbeing was assured and I was untouchable. That I would live forever -regardless of the risk involved.

These impulsive feelings actually make perfect sense based on Scientific research: The teen brain is unique. It thinks primarily with the amygdala - the emotional side of the brain, while adults think with their prefrontal cortex - the part that responds to situations with good judgement and a focus on the long term consequences of an action. It takes until your mid 20's for the prefrontal cortex to fully develop. So until then, remember that this moment will pass and your life has a lot ahead of it - if you play your cards right. One momentary error in judgement can have a big impact, even if you don't see it right now.

There were countless times in high school when I put myself in danger, where one wrong move could've had dire consequences. I remember one Saturday night during senior year when I broke up a fight. I chastised myself for weeks for not hitting the bully earlier to protect my friend better. Three years later I read in the news that the same bully had beat someone to death. Turns out that impulse I had might've been shortsighted.

Ask yourself if experimenting with hard drugs will be worth the risk to your brain while it's still developing. Is that emoji on your text message while you're driving worth it? These are all decisions you must make for yourself. Just remember to keep an eye out for the bright future that awaits you beyond this moment, and the loved ones who care for you more than you might care for yourself. Know that elderly millionaires & billionaires would give up their fortune to live just one more healthy day. Being alive is the most precious gift of all.

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5) It's All Going to be Fine!
Feeling sad or a bit depressed is, sadly, quite normal. But, based on everything we just said about how the teen brain primarily sees only the immediate reality, it's easy to feel hopeless - that the pain we're going through right now is forever. But I'm here to tell you that it will pass! There's SO many better life experiences on the other side of your teen years.

Didn't get that date with your crush for the homecoming dance? A truly loving relationship may be awaiting you in the future.
Got a B- on the History test you expected an A in? Trust me, it won't impact your long term happiness, and definitely not the sales pitch you'll make for your business when you're 25. The key is only that you continue to try and grow everyday. Some do that through academic excellence, while others grow their skills in business, the arts, or something else they're passionate about.
 
Yes, do your best in school and try to succeed in all your endeavors; not only for college but because it builds your mental strength, perseverance and responsibility. But also follow your inner passion and creativity and don't let school define you. As a matter of fact, don't let any one skill define your worth - grades, romance, sports, or how skilled you are at gaining followers on social media.

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You have an intrinsic, infinite value. So treat yourself with love. Then give that love to others. What we like most about other people is when they're happy with who they are - not trying to be someone else but just being themselves while being nice to others and showing they care. Why be someone else when you are a unique light that the world has never seen before? That's why you had to be born - without you humanity was  incomplete.

Remember to trust the process, that every detail of your life is being carefully watched over with love, with a special plan in store for you.

Remember that there's ALWAYS light after the darkness: The darkness is only there to lead you to an even greater light afterwards.

Rap, Judaism & Meeting Shyne in Prison

       On left, 14 yr old me, freestyle rapping at a talent show. Right, Don C of the Arch Druids

      On left, 14 yr old me, freestyle rapping at a talent show. Right, Don C of the Arch Druids

During my rocky teen years, I listened almost exclusively to Rap music. My frustrations, anger at the world, and dreams of a big future one day found resonance in the rhymes of TupacNas, and others. Most beloved to me though was 2pac. Look, I wouldn't encourage people to look to Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg for an inspiring, spiritual experience. And yes, the most famous rap songs usually focus on themes of power, girls, money, drugs and violent crime. But while 2pac often focused on these themes and had lots of inner demons, unlike most of the others he was a true poet, often touching on meaningful ideas, wearing his deepest emotions, fears, and aspirations on his sleeve. He even wrote a book of poetry, "A Rose that Grew from the Concrete", a title that encapsulated his life: You can shine your unique light and change the world, even if you come from the bleakest of environments. 

                      I got shot five times, but I'm still breathin' / Living proof there's a God if you need a reason  - Tupac Shakur in  Letter to my Unborn Child

                    I got shot five times, but I'm still breathin' / Living proof there's a God if you need a reason - Tupac Shakur in Letter to my Unborn Child

When going through tough times, I could listen to his intense struggles and felt like I wasn't the only one experiencing the pain I was feeling.  In "Keep ya head up" and "Dear Mama", 2pac hailed the greatness of women in our world. Don't let anyone keep you down. I made sure his just released song "Changes" was played at my Bar Mitzvah party, a song that shows the power rap can have in a positive sense when deployed with an elevated message. Gunned down at just 25 yrs. of age, I think 2pac would've eventually moved beyond his thug life persona and progressed into a powerful, positive leader in the U.S.A. We will never know.  

At 17, I began to connect with my spiritual side, leading to my exploration of Judaism in depth. By 2007, I was learning full time in a high level Yeshiva in Brooklyn, New York, home to the Notorious B.I.G, Jay Z, and a big Hassidic Jewish community - a perfect life balance for me. When the holiday of Purim came around, I signed up as a volunteer to bring the holiday joy to Jews in need. I was assigned by the Aleph Institute - which serves Jewish prison inmates - to visit penitentiaries in upstate New York, ranging from white collar to maximum security. The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that living as a lofty soul in a body that desires only material pleasures is a bit like being in a prison for the soul. Being a prison inmate, then, is a doubled incarceration of the spirit. I felt this was a great mission to undertake, bringing the joy of the Purim salvation to those most in need of feeling redemption.

Armed with hamantaschen cookies, the Megillah scroll of Esther, and other goodies, my friends and I set off from Brooklyn into the snow filled New York night. Our coins for charity weren't allowed in, as the officers worried they would be used to buy things between inmates. During the megillah reading, when reaching the name of the wicked Haman, the graggers (noise makers) shaken by the inmates brought the guards into the room thinking a riot might be starting! 

The next morning we visited a prison in Woodmere. One of the attendees looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn't remember from where and I doubted I knew anyone in a prison in upstate New York. We sang and danced together, and this sad looking man smiled for the first time. We discussed the story, the power of positive thinking, and soon our time was up. I returned to yeshiva and freedom, celebrating the end of the holiday with gusto.

Years later, while visiting a small town in Italy, I turned on my laptop and read a shocking news story: Shyne, the popular gangster rapper of the late '90's I used to listen to, was free from prison after serving 9 years for an infamous night club shooting involving his mentor Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and Jennifer Lopez. But that wasn't what so surprised me. What shocked me was that he had become an orthodox Jew and had moved to Jerusalem to study Torah.  And then it hit me: This was the sad looking guy at our Purim party at Woodmere prison!

Now you have to understand something: Shyne wasn't just your average rapper. He epitomized the streets, as authentically gangsta as it comes. To see this transformation was nothing short of incredible. But it makes sense. We can only truly be happy if we nourish our souls like we nourish our bodies. Without any deep purpose or direction to life, nothing stops it from spiraling into chaos, and that's what Shyne felt.

Jews and Hip Hop have always been deeply connected. In the early '80's it was The Beastie Boys who started things off. Soon after, the legendary Rick Rubin founded Def Jam Records, later led by Israeli boss Lyor Cohen, the instrumental label that produced most of East Coast Hip Hop's success of the '90's and 2000's. Today, Jewish rappers Drake, Mac Miller, Lil Dicky and Action Bronson are running things, and producers Alchemist and Scott Storch have produced countless hits. 

                                                   Mac Miller 

                                                  Mac Miller 

But it wasn't until Matisyahu came around that deeply meaningful living was incorporated into rap lyrics. Like no one else before him, he fused rap with Godliness and Jewish philosophy, and he impacted me greatly as I too looked to fuse Jewish spiritual living with modern American life and pop culture.

Rappers Nosson Zand, Prodezra, Zeke Finn, Remedy, Kosha Dillz, Darshan, Nissim Black and many others are today doing the same, and it's a beautiful thing.

Judaism teaches that we are to take our talents, passions and creative expression - and to use them to uplift the world. Everything in this world can be elevated to a higher purpose. Musicians have one of the most powerful gifts humanity has to offer, and rap is one of the most clear and direct mediums of artful expression. Describing gritty street life is real and needs to be expressed. But my hope is that talented artists, in whatever they're doing, will more and more use their skills for a greater, elevated purpose, to inspire their audience to be greater. We saw how powerful that style of music could be when Eminem came out with "Lose Yourself."

Whatever talent or passion we have, let's use it to make the world a better, more Godly place. I think that's what 2pac would tell us today. 

I will leave off with this religious Jewish dude spitting fire on a street corner in NYC.