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ONE-ON-ONE WITH ORLY WAHBA, THE FOUNDER OF LIFE VEST INSIDE

By: Kelly Jemal Massry



“Ever since I was a little kid I’ve been a dreamer,” say Orly Wahba, founder of the nonprofit organization Life Vest Inside. “I knew there was something major I was meant to do with my life. I didn’t know what, but I knew it had to do with bringing people together, with helping people see beyond labels.”

Orly’s moral foundation was formed by her parents, whose personal stories taught her strength of character. She grew up believing that a single person really could make a difference and that one kind act could have untold ripple effects.

Though she was being built up at home, in school, she floundered. Academics were hard for her and, in being pulled out for extra support, she felt like a pariah. Over and over again, she was told that she wasn’t smart enough, wasn’t good enough to change all that she hoped she could. In this context, Orly wrestled with herself. There were her dreams, and then there was reality – circumstances she could not surmount and adults who kept pulling her down, leaving her to doubt her true potential.

Orly’s resource room teacher extended a lifeline in the form of a poem entitled “The Man who Thinks he Can.” Orly studied that poem until its words penetrated, leaving an impression of hope and promise. She came to realize that she could get where she wanted in life, if she believed in and loved herself.

When Orly was a sophomore in high school, tragedy struck. Her family’s home burned to the ground and they lost everything except each other. The fire created a snowball effect where everything that could go wrong did. Soon after, her father lost his business and it was a long time before they could start over again together. For six years, Orly and the members of her family lived apart from one another. With her possessions gone and those she loved so far-flung, Orly felt utterly bereft.

She returned to school after the fire, attempting to exude an upbeat façade, but she couldn’t stay strong for long. In December of that year, Orly sunk into a deep depression, spending most of the day sleeping and only waking up for brief periods to cry. During this time, not one person called or visited. No one, it seemed, would dare to venture into her world of personal pain. Though she had spent the months before the fire trying to find validation, her thin wall of self-worth began to crumble once she felt invisible. “I started to think, ‘If I wasn’t here tomorrow, would anybody even notice? Would anybody even care?’ relays Orly.

            One morning in February, while washing up before school, Orly took the time to look at herself in the mirror. What she saw frightened her. “I didn’t see that four-year-old kid looking back at me, that kid that dreamed of changing the world,” she says. “And that is what shook me up the most. I said, ‘I can’t let this be my end!’ And at that moment, I made a promise to myself to be there for people the way I wished somebody would have been there for me, to see people the way I wished somebody would have seen me.”

Over the next two years, Orly walked the halls of high school alone and fell in love with herself for who she was. She rebuilt herself and projected her new sense of self outwards. She would speak often in the coming years about overcoming hardship and, because of what she’d suffered, her words weren’t empty. Instead they were invested with meaning and had a resonance that was life-changing. Orly has this to say about the fire that could have been the end of her but instead was the start of such a bright beginning: “I found my greatest strength through the greatest tragedy of my life. I became in lovewith the idea of giving – and I found that the more I gave, the more I healed.”

Orly finally moved back into her home as a junior in Brooklyn College. In 2004, she graduated with a dual degree in English and Film. She would later use this knowledge to shoot and produce “Kindness Boomerang,” which has been viewed by 100 million people around the world and led to her acclaimed TED Talk. But first, she’d teach middle school at the Yeshiva of Flatbush for seven transformative years. Orly took the position because she wanted to be a part of forming impressionable minds. “It wasn’t about teaching facts and figures,” Orly says of her former career. “The things I was teaching were love and belief of self, which leads to love and belief in others.”

In January of 2007, just before boarding a plane for winter vacation, Orly learned that six-year-old Stella Laniado, a’’h, had passed away. Orly was devastated and couldn’t imagine how she would explain this tragedy to her students, who were still reeling from the death of young Reina Varon three years earlier. As Orly mounted the plane, her eyes filling with tears, she kept repeating to herself, “How do you stay afloat? How do you stay afloat in a world that seems to be pulling you downwards?” Sitting down in an unassigned seat, Orly glanced to her left and saw a plaque containing three words that would change her life: Life Vest Inside. Orly looked up and smiled. I got it, she thought. There’s a life vest inside the Torah. With refined eyes, Orly began to see the principle of kindness everywhere inside the Torah and encouraged her students to do the same.

It was with her students that Orly first devised the far-reaching Acts of Kindness cards. Students were instructed to perform the small act and then pass the card on in order to keep the kindness going.  During the Spring of 2009, Orly shared a dream with her students: “What if we duplicated thousands of these cards, and translated them in so many different languages and got them out there?” she asked them. Soon, this would come to be the case, but not for years yet. And even this noble dream was not the impetus that turned Orly’s belief in kindness into an organization.

That summer, Tisha B’Av took on new meaning. “I realized the reason we’re in this galut is because of sinat hinam – because of people being unkind to one another,” says Orly. “And if we’re here in galut because of sinat hinam, we have the power to undo the damage that was done through ahavat hinam.” Filled with exuberance, Orly resolved to singlehandedly spearhead the effort. “We’re going to turn Tisha B’Av into a day of happiness,” she said to herself. “We’re going to bring mashiah!”

This, then, is the real motivation behind Life Vest Inside – to erase hate, to be a light unto the nations, to perform a tikun olam so powerful it will change the world. “I started this organization to bring mashiah, to infuse reality with an ahava that’s so strong we’re going to bring olam haba into olam hazeh,” Orly says.Believing wholeheartedly in this dream, Orly resigned from teaching in order to devote herself fully to the organization. It has since become a global sensation, owing largely to her film Kindness Boomerang, which went viral overnight. “Hashem did it,” she says firmly. “I put my video out there with a very pure intention and it spread. It went outward into the world and my hope is to bring it back here into the community.”

Life Vest Inside has been inspiring people of every creed and background for six years now. Deeply secure in her Jewish faith and wearing her orthodoxy proudly, Orly seeks to affect the lives of others by validating the contributions they have to give. “See the light and the beauty within each and every person,” she urges, “and help them see it within themselves. Let’s take down barriers that divide us and foster the things that unite us.” Orly’s encouragement of kindness is subtle, but always powerful because it is universal.  “What’s going to bring change in this world?” she asks. “It’s not weapons. It’s not war. It’s words. Powerful words of kindness.”

Orly invested her entire life savings into Life Vest Inside and, since its inception six years ago, has not taken a single penny in salary. She lives with her parents, upon whom she is wholly indebted for making this lifestyle a possibility. Although the nonprofit organization has won a couple of well-deserved grants, they are not regularly funded. Though Orly is supported by a diverse volunteer base from 120 countries, she runs the day to day operations herself on what little finances she has.

To get behind Life Vest Inside and donate to the cause, visit www.lifevestinside.com. There you’ll find information about its many initiatives including Dance for Kindness, Project Hope Exchange, the Kindness Ambassador Program, the Educational Kindness Curriculum, and Orly’s new book Kindness Boomerang, for which she will soon leave on a cross-country tour. Readers can also sign up for the Daily Kind email, a thirty-second read that will kick start their day with kindness. Let’s unite behind Orly’s message of love and kindness, tolerance, and acceptance and with these efforts, bring mashiah in our time!