It is my turn. I walk towards the podium and take a deep breath; I assure myself that everything will go well. I can do this. These people will support me. As I begin my speech, my shaky voice soon becomes grounded. I look up at my audience and carefully speak my heart.
Before experiencing Diller, the thought of speaking in public threw me into a state of panic. I will always remember my public speaking disaster. At my sixth grade back-to-school night, I read my original story to the classroom. Before I finished the first sentence, my imagination betrayed me. Does my writing make sense? Are they laughing at me? I kept my eyes glued to the paper, rushing to the end and becoming increasingly more unintelligible. While my mind was racing, the words refused to leave my mouth. My anxiety won.
After that experience, I avoided speaking in public. I feared people would think I spoke weirdly––my stutter took years to get rid of. My speech impediment impacted my self-confidence; I cared too much about what others might think, so I tried to plan out every word. During conversations, instead of talking, I stayed silent. Although I enjoyed listening, I yearned to contribute, but the memory of my breakdown haunted me.
Then I joined Diller sophomore year––a one year leadership program for Jewish teenagers. In the beginning, whenever there was a casual exchange, I rarely spoke and listened from the sidelines. During these moments, I wanted to say something witty about current politics or sports, but I was too concerned about their reactions. By the time I came up with a topical idea, the conversation had passed the point where the reference would feel natural. Opportunities continued to pass. I wanted to break this cycle and needed to take action.
Everything would change at the next Diller Shabbaton (a weekend retreat). During a break, I saw members of the group talking. I had two choices: I could face my fears, or I could shy away, again. Although I was uneasy, over those six months I had determined that my peers were not ones to judge. I walked over and joined them. They opened up space and instantly included me; my misgivings were unfounded. By the end, I became more comfortable and cracked jokes; they laughed with me. Finally, I was myself. I learned that I cannot let my insecurities control my actions. I was fed up being the odd one out, and now, I felt a sense of kinship to my Diller Fellows.
As we sang around the campfire that night, I felt more confident in myself than ever before; Diller had taken the courage I was always looking for and yanked it out of me. My new friends allowed me to express my voice freely.
This newfound confidence has impacted me in many ways. Now, I speak more in class and no longer worry about what others will think. When I did a group presentation in Spanish class this year and my partners were strangers, instead of passively doing my part, I took charge in divvying up the roles. Additionally, I now pursue new activities and intellectual curiosities. This happened this past summer when I enrolled in a program through the Shalom Hartman institute that offered daily lectures and discussions on Judaism and current events. My ‘leap of faith’ resulted in the enrichment of my knowledge of Judaism’s connection to socio-political matters. Diller transformed me into a person no longer bound by ungrounded reservations.
As I said my final words, the memory from sixth grade no longer felt so heavy. I refuse to let the fears of my younger self control me. I now know that if I do not try, I cannot grow.
Diller alum Alexander Popolow wrote this essay for his college application. He will be attending Washington University in the fall.