Haina Just-Michael

Haina lives in New Rochelle, NY, with her husband Bernie and daughters Shuli, Rose and Sara. Sara attends Queens College and is the student president of Chabad. Haina is a member of the Advisory Board of Chabad QC, and is involved in many worthy causes. She has a BA from NYU and a Masters from Penn. She happily obliged to be the subject of this week’s interview, commenting that, “listening is a powerful art form.”Haina and Sara

Where were you born and where did you grow up?
Long Island Jewish Hospital, and I grew up in Queens. My parents were one of the first people to help establish the Young Israel of Jamaica Estates. Before that we attended a Conservative synagogue, the Hillcrest Jewish Center. And I attended PS 178. I’m very proud of my public school education. I do a lot of work with the city of New Rochelle, and there are fantastic teachers. Students today are bright and fascinating. You get out what you put in. I didn’t send my kids to public school, partly because of my own lack of Jewish education.

Did your husband also attend Public School?
Partial public school, and partial Horace Mann. Then his family moved to Florida, where he went to Public School.

How did you meet your husband Bernie?
Oh, that’s fun! We were both at a party in Brooklyn. I was supposed to be studying Ulpan in Israel [earlier that year], but I was hiking instead. I made a friend who went to Brown University [where Bernie went], and she introduced me to Bernie at this party in Brooklyn. We started chatted, and he seemed interesting. We got married within the year. You either know, or you don’t, right? His parents are Polish, and my dad is Polish, my mom is American. My children have three [Holocaust] survivor grandparents. I could understand some Yiddish, and I knew they were speaking about me if they spoke Polish. They had great senses of humor and were very giving, which is also the way I was brought up. Neither Bernie nor I were brought up with allowance as kids; if we needed something, our parents would say, “You can have the money you want, but are you missing something?” It’s not do you need it? – it’s, are you missing something? These are two very different questions. Am I missing something? So far, so good! And I love to share. It works. My kids have spoiled me.

Can you tell me something about your likes or hobbies etc.?
You know what? That’s very broad. My treat to myself this summer is that I play tennis every morning for two hours. My kids are proud – and I love that – that everything I do, I want people around me to know what I’m doing. I don’t think there should be a difference between your private life and your public life. Before we would go out when we were kids, my father would always said, “Be alert.” And I used to think, what does that mean? And I think it means that you should be conscious of what you’re doing. It’s knowing who you are and where you are. You want to be the kind of person that people look towards for comfort and safety. You know, if you think about your personal responsibility as a parent, it is so scary! Your kids look to you for safety…. I like to take apples and oranges and make one basket out of it – some people say you shouldn’t mix apples and oranges, but sometimes when you mix apples & oranges, you get the best dessert! It’s like that with people, too.

Why did you send your daughter Sara to Queens College?
Sara is a good student, and QC is a great match, because it allows her to be herself. She’s able to get guidance, and it is very tachlis (practical). She’s become a real leader there. She’s starting a tennis club, and she loves to do stuff on campus. And she loves Shabbos with you guys! She’s very independent, and QC is such a good fit.

And she’s on student government, as well.
Yes, and I would not have guessed that she would do that! Queens College is just such a good match! She also loves the diverse community.

What has been your favorite job – volunteer or paid?
Wow. Wow. That’s a tough one. I could tell you my least favorite! Teaching. I was a language arts specialist, and I remember feeling that you had to be “on” all the time. It’s exhausting. I don’t know how people teach for 30 years. The worst part was the teacher’s lounge. Everyone wants to sit and talk. I was 22, and I just wanted to sit down, relax and eat lunch. There were also kids who wouldn’t cooperate, and I was frustrated by that. My first real paid job was to be kind of a diplomat and a news producer. It was memorable and I got to travel a lot. I was hired in the public relations department  of American Jewish Committee, and my specialty was broadcast. I was broadcasting news, radio and TV pieces all over. It was exciting. I met presidents, defense ministers of Israel and the United States. When Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated, I ended up producing a lot of memorial events. It was a unique position.

What’s your favorite Jewish food?
<Laughs>. Do you consider hummus and chatzilim Jewish food? And anything spicy.

What is your proudest moment as a mom?
This is going to sound weak, but speaking at my mother’s funeral. I’m not a great public speaker, and I’m terrible about death and dying. My mother died on a Saturday night. I wasn’t planning on speaking, but when I woke up the next morning, I just starting writing. I thought to myself, I am going to regret not speaking. I didn’t want to disappoint myself or my mother. I wanted to be sure that my mother would not be defined by her death or her illness. As a parent, my daughters make me proud every day. I am so grateful.

Do you have a particularly memorable Israel experience?
Every experience in Israel is memorable. I had a unique experience in 1981. I was hiking with a group in the desert, and I passed out. Not completely, but I was dehydrated. All I had with me was a swim suit. I was in Dahab at an army outpost, and the hiking group went ahead. It was me and some army guys. They gave me water, army clothes, and I spent two days there. I was playing sheis-beish with them. They were reading Future Shock by Alvin Toffler, which was very popular at the time, and we were speaking about it. Eating schnitzel and playing sheish-beish. That’s not even the weirdest story, but it’s one of them. I was going to chopper back to Jerusalem with the doctor, but the hiking group I was with came back. Three years later, on the subway in NY, some man was looking at me, and he said in a thick Israeli accent, “Did you pass out three years ago in the desert?”

Sheish-beish is my favorite game! I love it for two reasons: It’s a combination of skill & luck; and I learned how to play from my uncle Janos in Vancouver, who I have a very special connection with. 
I still play almost every night! I like your metaphor: A combination of skill & luck… that’s how I feel my life has been! Some skill, and lots of luck.

Anything else you would like to ad?
Why do you do these interviews?

I really enjoy doing these interviews. You find out that, really, everybody is interesting. And you can learn from everybody. I’ve been getting great feedback on these interviews, and I think they have the potential to connect worlds. At the end of the day, we’re all people.

I’m amazed sometimes at how people don’t know how to view other people. It’s not just learning about ourselves – you know that – but we have to know what’s going on outside.  Also, you can’t take yourself too seriously; you’ve got to have a sense of humor.