Twitter Personality of the Week #17: 10 Questions for Bethany Shondark Murphy (@bethanyshondark)

                I have received a significant number of unexpected blessings since vaulting full-bore into political activism and social media a couple of years ago. But the number of Jewish friends with whom I have become acquainted in the conservative movement has been a development I simply did not envision. In fact, this column is on a roll lately, in that regard! None of them have mentioned it, but the last three “Twitter Personality” features (Sarah Smith, Nathan Wurtzel and Sarah Desprat) are all Jewish conservatives. (And I can’t neglect to mention my friends Kevin Eder and Dina Fraioli, either!) Today, we provide another powerhouse addition to those ranks.

                Bethany Shondark Murphy is a peerless example of so much that gives me firmly grounded hope for the next generation of conservatives. Bethany is a first-generation conservative. Raised in a liberal home, she exhibits the enthusiasm of a convert, but the magnanimity of a gentle soul. She has the historical and intellectual foundation to bolster her arguments with facts, but gilds them in the modern motif that comes with requisite knowledge of the popular culture today.

                Bethany was one of my early Twitter follows; in fact, she was residing deep in Cambodia at the time I discovered her account. She is now back in the United States and employed by the Heritage Foundation (more details below on both). She offers one of the most riveting mixes of information that I have found in the continuously expanding sphere that is Twitter. At age 24, Bethany has already seen more of the world than most Americans have in a much lengthier lifetime. Follow her at @bethanyshondark and you will glimpse whereof I speak. Intelligent, cultured, articulate, lots of heart…Bethany is all of that and more.      

With Seth in the Aya Sofia mosque in Istanbul this last April.

                A personal note: I took a brief “Introduction to Judaism” course at the small Bible college I attended in my undergraduate years. I never dreamed at that time that years later, as an ardent evangelical Christian (Yes, you can even call me a fundamentalist, if you want), my life would be so wondrously enriched by knowing Bethany and her soon-to-be husband, Seth…both devout orthodox Jews. This is the beauty of the conservative movement and how it brings people together, united around what binds us, rather than parting ways over our (deeply held) distinctions.

                Also…Bethany is officially the first of my interviewees ever to somewhat mischievously, but purposefully add an 11th question on her own, so be sure you don’t miss THAT. 

10 Questions for Bethany Shondark Murphy

1. When I first started following you on Twitter, you were teaching in Cambodia and touring other exotic locations! How did this opportunity come about? What made you decide you wanted to live overseas for a while…and what made Asia the ultimate destination?

When I was sixteen, I spent a year in Belgium as an exchange student. That’s when I was bitten by the travel bug. I traveled every summer in college, to Israel and Egypt one year, to Cambodia the next, and finally backpacked across Central America when I graduated. I’ve always been academically interested in genocide, specifically in Cambodia, and I first went to live there in 2007 for three months to teach English in Phnom Penh, the capital. I strangely always dreamed of buying a plane ticket to Phnom Penh from the time I was in middle school, so living in Cambodia that summer was a dream (and honestly, sometimes a nightmare). I moved to DC in 2008 after I finished college, hoping to find a job in politics. As you can imagine, none existed on our side of the spectrum at that time, and I started working in fundraising for a synagogue in DC. Working for a synagogue was not why I moved to Washington, and I felt quite unfulfilled professionally. After a boyfriend broke up with me because I was conservative, I decided that I had had it with DC and applied to the Peace Corps. As luck would have it, they assigned me to Cambodia and I started reading the Phnom Penh Post (the local English daily newspaper) trying to get reacclimated to the crazy stories that come out of Cambodia (man kills wife with crossbow for not making enough rice for dinner).  

With two of my students, Sophy & Somphors.

One day, I read an article about a new Western run school that had opened just outside of Siem Reap (the tourist town outside of Angkor Wat – a famous temple complex). The school’s principal was very blunt and honest about their mission: teaching students who were committed to learning, and not being politically correct in teaching them that every aspect of their culture was acceptable. Not surprisingly, he got a lot of slack in the NGO community when the article was published, but I admired his honesty, and agreed that children should not be taught that going to the witch doctor down the street is as acceptable as going to the hospital with modern medicine. I applied for a position, and, I think, given a lack of more qualified teaching applicants, I was hired on as a fifth grade general teacher. While I was there, I traveled around Asia a bit (to Laos, Bangkok and Singapore), but most of my time was in my classroom with my students – and that was honestly where I wanted to be, anyway. I loved waking up every morning, and really could not have enjoyed my students more, while working in the middle of a rice paddy with moaning water buffalos outside my window.

2. We have discussed your upbringing in a liberal Jewish household. Tell us about your conservative awakening and where it has brought you.

Actually, my household wasn’t Jewish, necessarily. My mom was Catholic and my dad was Jewish (I use the past tense because they’re both deceased). My dad left when I was very young, and my mother, being the good liberal that she was, taught me that both religions were valid and wonderful and that I could choose either. I was six years old when I told her I wanted to be Jewish, and ten years old when I stopped letting her buy me Christmas presents and Easter baskets. My mother was really accommodating and bought me seder plates, made me matzo ball soup, and taught me about the Holocaust. I self-taught myself Judaism, thanks in no small part to Amazon.com.  

She was, as I mentioned, off the charts liberal. She voted for Ralph Nader every election year and my first memory in life is driving down the Long Island Expressway, giving abortion clinic protestors the middle finger. It wasn’t until college (after she died) that I began to move slowly to the right. I was studying history my freshman spring semester and for the first time, I heard the real story on Israel: that it wasn’t a genocidal apartheid state. On the contrary, it was a state that would give anything for peace, but was thwarted at every opportunity. Seeing how the Left portrayed this part of history made me question everything I believed and had been taught. Reading Ayn Rand that subsequent summer put me on the road to where I am now.

3. Tell us about your role at the Heritage Foundation.

I was so lucky to land on my feet at my dream organization right after coming home, and I’m not saying that only because some of my coworkers might read this! I was a “Heritage nerd” long before I worked there and was a member of the Young President’s Club starting the year before I left for Cambodia. I would often tweet to them and about them, and followed a lot of their coverage of the healthcare debate. It so happened, a week after I returned, a position opened up working in online fundraising on a team with someone I would occasionally chat with on Twitter. It was an incredibly lucky scenario where I found myself seamlessly transitioning from one dream job to another.

4. I told our mutual friend, Kevin Eder, a few months ago that prior to joining Twitter, I had no Jewish friends! So friendships such as ours have been one of the blessings of social networking that I didn’t foresee. You’re a practicing Orthodox Jew and I’m a committed Christian. How can we and others like us forge common cause in the conservative movement today?

Committed religious people, regardless of faith, have a natural home in the conservative movement. People often ask me, exasperated, why Jews are liberal. And I respond, most Jews who actually care about their religion are not. The majority of American Jews who live in Israel are Orthodox, and over 80% of them voted for John McCain in 2008. The best and most effective defenders of Zionism are committed Christians, and there is seamless overlap in the family values sides of both religions. A major frustration I have with my community is that they are not more politically involved – however, there is not a right-leaning Jewish organization for them to become involved in. The conservative movement is viewed by many as being mostly Christian dominated and a lot of Jews are scared off by that. I think more Jews are moving rightward because of the Israel policies of the current administration, and I think that if the conservative movement finds a way to effectively reach out to religious Jews there’s a chance at forging a connection. A good start might be to have events and rallies that are not held on the Jewish Sabbath and major holidays, but that’s just a suggestion. 🙂                      

Seth and I in Petra, Jordan. Also this last April.

5. What role or influence does your faith play in the career decisions you make and the policy goals you pursue…your involvement in the arena of traditional/conservative ideas, in other words?

I am really lucky to work at Heritage, where there are so many committed people of every religious persuasion. I believe that the Torah was handed to Moses at Sinai, and that the rules given aren’t something that can be altered to “fit the times” or because we feel like it. I believe the same when it comes to the Constitution, that it is not a “living” document, but instead a blueprint to how our Founding Fathers imagined this country. I like that there is a clear sense of morality, rules and expectations in both the conservative movement and in Judaism. Jews throughout history have valued hard work and perseverance and that is something that I have admired about conservatives in the modern United States.

6. We want to know more about the various life pursuits that bring you exuberance and joy, so please share your favorites in the following categories, as well as a few miscellaneous ones: Books, movies, music, travel destinations (since that’s a specialty for you), foods…whatever else.

My favorite books: Atlas Shrugged, Radical Son (David Horowitz), and Witness (Chambers). The last two hit close to home for me, given my rightward turn from extreme Leftism.

My favorite movies: The Princess Bride and Anchorman are the two I could bring to an island and never tire of.

My favorite music: I like slow acoustic stuff for the most part. I love Ryan Adams and am very sad that Mandy Moore took him off the market.

Travel: Is it clichéd for a Jew to say Israel? Okay good, Israel. It has something for everyone: the desert, the mountains, history, dozens of different cultures, beautiful weather… you name it. I would suggest that everyone visit Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and also Tikal in Guatemala (along with Lago d’Atitlan).

7. Who are three people who have been positive influences in your life at crucial junctures?

My mom! For as much as she was a crazy quasi-Catholic devoted Leftist, has given me a lot of strength and chutzpah. She taught me not to cry in public and to always defend my beliefs, and I always admired her strength through her illness.                         

By a lovely waterfall in Laos.

I would not have made it through my parent’s deaths (my mom in high school, my dad early in college) if it wasn’t for my cousin, Lori. She provided me endless amounts of support, and I never doubted that she would drive me and all my stuff to college or that she would mind getting a 3 AM phone call after my then-boyfriend’s first experience with vodka.

My step-father (my mom’s ex-husband) has also been a great steady force in my life. He and my mom divorced before she died, but that didn’t stop him from flying to Rochester (where my mom and I lived) with his new wife and her son to help me clean out my house after she died. He even emptied a refrigerator that had been filled with food and then turned off for six months.  

8. Who is Seth Mandel???!!! Tell us what you can about him, how the two of you met and any future plans?

Seth is my soul mate! I know: totally sappy, but true. We are very similar: same music and movie tastes, and in our religious and political views. He was an editor of four Jewish newspapers in New Jersey before we moved, and he’s now free-lance writing and reporting while looking for full-time work. You might notice my Facebook, Twitter feed and g-chat status are usually filled with what we call “shameless Seth-promotion.”

As for how we met… I think it’s a great story. I left for Cambodia casually dating his best friend. While I was there, we talked a lot on gchat, and soon he became the only person above the age of 12 with whom I had regular interaction. The best friend would always joke that Seth and I were soul mates, and that he was just dating me until we realized it. Three weeks after “Voldemort” and I broke up, I told Seth that I had had feelings for him since the day I heard about him. Thankfully, the feelings were mutual. We told our group of friends and then witnessed a complete nuclear explosion in our social circle, before we had ever even gone on a first date. Seth lost most of his lifelong friends, and I lost almost all of my college friends. I came back to the States in December for 13 days for a visit, and three days in, Seth booked a ticket to Israel, where I was already planning on spending my 2-week spring vacation. As I waited for my flight back to Cambodia thirteen days later, I called my friend Yael and told her I was 98.6% sure he would be my husband. We spent the first seven months of our relationship thirteen time zones apart, but already started talking about getting married, three months in. A month after I returned from Cambodia, we moved together down to DC. His newspaper had shut down, and I was offered the opportunity at Heritage.          

With one of my students. My classroom was open on all four sides (so yes, that meant I had no A/C in 100+ degrees everyday). Behind me you can see the view from the back of the classroom - a rice paddy, usually filled with water buffalos.

Judaism is passed through the mother, so I am currently undergoing an Orthodox conversion to Judaism so that I’m officially a member of the tribe. When that’s over, Seth and I plan to get married just as soon as we can wearing Converse sneakers (mine red, his black).

9. When did you discover social networking and begin to make it work for you and was it challenging to tweet from overseas?

I started tweeting due to boredom at my first job in DC at the synagogue. @DonIrvine started following me, and I realised I could talk about politics to people who felt the same way I do. When I was in Cambodia I was on a crazy time schedule because I was often up early and late talking to Seth (after school naps were crucial in this schedule). I loved having social media to connect with people in the States who loved politics as much as I did, and who were as frustrated as I was by the administration pushing through healthcare namely. I had no-one but Seth to talk about it with, and keeping in touch with people in the States helped me follow everything that was going on in real time.

10. What are 3 life goals that remain unfinished at this point in your life?

As Seth will tell anyone, I have baby fever. Serious baby fever. Having a family is something that is on the top of my life to-do list. I would love to write a book about the role of the American Left in the Cambodian genocide. Lastly, when Seth and I retire, I want us to buy an RV and drive through South America. 

11. What is your name? (okay I added this question because nobody knows)

My middle name is Shondark and my last name is Murphy. When I was 18 I changed my last name from my father’s (Horowitz) to my mother’s. I also decided to change my middle name (Ann) to what my mom actually wanted to name me: Shondark. It’s an English spelling of the French pronunciation of Joan of Arc (Joan d’Arc). My mom loved Joan of Arc – a strong woman who killed men in the name of G-d. I really like my middle name, and figured I would be changing my last name when I got married, so I made all of my emails and social media handles with my middle name. I thought that was smart, except that nobody knows my real name.

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