Jesse Brandt was a senior at Berkeley High School when the pandemic hit, and finishing his senior year from home wasn’t easy. But it inspired him to reflect on what really mattered to him, ultimately putting him on a whole new life trajectory. For the first time in many years, he woke up excited to begin each day.

Jesse, like his parents and most of his friends, had long assumed that going to college was the only sensible choice after high school if you wanted to have a successful adult life. School had never come easily to Jesse, who struggles with learning differences, but he worked hard at it, did well enough, and dutifully applied to a host of colleges. Then he began listening to the inner voice that told him what he really loved was working with his hands, building and making things, and it was okay to pursue that instead. When the college acceptance and rejection letters started coming in, Jesse never even opened them.

He landed a full-time job in construction right after graduation, working for a local family-owned contracting company, and loved every second of it. He made a living wage, felt nurtured by a great boss and a caring crew, and homed in on a special interest in fine carpentry. Last year Jesse enrolled in the Port Townsend School of Woodworking in the Pacific Northwest and, with help from Hebrew Free Loan, has completed a course of studies in woodworking and furniture-making.

“Getting an interest-free vocational student loan is empowering me to build a skill set that will benefit me for the rest of my life. And keeping the loan process within the Jewish community sure beats dealing with a bank!”

Although Jesse enjoyed his year on the Olympic Peninsula, he’s excited to be returning to Northern California. He’ll spend the summer teaching fine woodworking at Eden Village West, a Jewish summer camp in Sonoma County, and then he’ll come home to Berkeley to grow his carpentry business and begin building his own furniture shop. Jesse’s long-term goal is to design and build artisan custom furniture.

Getting a vocational student loan from Hebrew Free Loan reminded Jesse of the ways that Judaism has always been a big part of his life. He’s not observant, but he went to Jewish summer camps growing up, and his father — a practicing rabbi before Jesse was born — used to head the Jewish Federation of the East Bay. He appreciates that his parents have come to accept his new career path, and he’s grateful for the support of the larger Jewish community as well.

“With academics, I always worked twice as hard to get half as far. Deciding to pursue carpentry instead of college won back my soul, away from a desk that would’ve been the death of me.”

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