Sunday, March 10, 2019

Joseph Barr: journey from Jerusalem leads to Grossmont College

Joseph Barr
Joseph Barr was looking for a new beginning. He found it at Grossmont College. 

As he works toward an associate degree in economics, Barr is an academic standout . He’s planning to transfer to San Diego State University, and is determined to secure a master’s degree – if not a doctorate - before embarking in a career in finance advocating for the underserved. 

“Grossmont College has provided me with a great present and a promising future,” said Barr, 33. “I truly enjoy coming to school. I feel like I’m doing something meaningful. I feel like I’m doing something important.” 

His achievements were recognized with an Osher scholarship from the Foundation for Grossmont & Cuyamaca Colleges during a January awards ceremony. 

Born and raised in Jerusalem, Barr grew up in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family – his father is a Rabbi at a Yeshiva, or a Jewish academy of Talmudic learning – and attended religious school that focused on Torah and Talmud at the expense of subjects such as mathematics and science.  

“Any book that wasn’t written by an ultra-Orthodox Jew was forbidden in our house,” said Barr. “I always felt like I was missing something. I was prohibited from doing a lot of stuff.” 

Barr’s yearning for something new reached its crescendo in 2010. His epiphany came while traveling to the Red Sea during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot that commemorates the Exodus. “My parents were American, so I was an American citizen and I had an American passport. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but I decided it was time to go.” 

He returned home, sold all of his belongings, bought a plane ticket and flew nearly 16 hours to Los Angeles with just $200 in his pocket, a packed suitcase and a backpack. Despite not knowing anyone, Barr landed a steady stream of retail jobs for several Israeli companies. It was a hard life.  

“I remember one time I was in Los Angeles, my car broke down on the 101 freeway, I didn’t have any money to buy a burger, and I didn’t have any money in the bank,” he said. “Something had to change.”

Indeed it did. He found a better-paying job in construction, saved everything he could, then set off for a months-long backpacking trip to South America that included meeting his future wife – who later earned a master’s degree at the University of San Diego School of Law – in  Brazil.  

He also picked up several languages along his journeys, including Portuguese and Spanish in South America. He’s also taking Arabic courses at Grossmont, while improving his English.  

Remembering the words of a Fullerton rabbi who became a close friend, Barr resolved to further his education after returning to the United States. “Rabbi (Haim) Asa told me, ‘You need to go to a community college. You’re going to do really well, you’re going to move on to a university and you’re going to become very successful. And when you get there, I want you to help other people, like I helped you.’” 

“Sadly enough, he passed away almost 5 year ago and never saw me going back to school,” Barr said. “I’m going to honor his words.” 

He’s doing that through Grossmont College. Barr’s determination has left an impact on his professors. 

“Joseph Barr is tenaciously committed to learning and to excellence,” said English instructor Ryan Griffith. “Seldom in my career have I worked with a student of his intelligence, curiosity, and work ethic.  He will do great things.”  

Nemie Capacia, co-chair of the Mathematics Department, is similarly impressed. 

“He emailed me even before the start of the semester for a copy of my syllabus and the title of the book so he can purchase it and work ahead,” Capacia said. “He was one of my students that semester who frequented my office during office hours to ask questions about homework or to clarify things that were covered in the class. He was very inquisitive and made sure he not only understood the mathematical processes on how problems are solved, but the how and why behind a mathematical concept. He was very determined to excel in my class and he did.” 

Likewise, the support Barr has received in helping him reach his goal is leaving a lasting impression on him. 

“This is the first time I felt like I belonged to a community since I moved to the United States,” he said.