so it begins

I just completed my first week of school (well, sort of). Sunday and Monday were orientation, and Tuesday through Friday were the first four days of a pre-semester seminar. My classes will start in earnest next week.

It’s hard to relate all of the feelings I’ve had in the past week. Frankly, it’s been overwhelming, but in the best way possible. I’ve loved meeting my new classmates, the returning students, and the faculty, as well as beginning to learn as a class and to pray as a community.

I’ve also spent a fair amount of the week in a kind of emotional suspended animation: I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. “It can’t really be that for once in my life I am in the right place.” “I can’t actually be doing what I supposed to be doing.” I know that not everything about this school and my experience as a student is or will be perfect. But I have never known peace like this.

First things first! The best thing about rabbinical school so far: I get to sing every day, and no one cares if (that?) I sing out of tune. I get to sing during morning prayers, and most communal time starts with a niggun (wordless melody). Even my class does! (Indeed, the fact that my admissions interview ended with a niggun solidified for me that Hebrew College was the right place for me.)

hebrew college’s selichot leader; photo by dena trugman (via instagram)

One of my favorite parts of the last week has been selichot, which unfortunately won’t be a regular occurrence throughout the year. Selichot are poems and prayers said during the Jewish month of Elul, which precedes the High Holidays. They explore themes of penitence and G-d’s mercy — not, perhaps, the most cheerful of topics — and at Hebrew College start at 7:00 a.m., before the morning service — giving an idea of how moving they must be to draw a crowd. (I have a limited music vocabulary, so I can only try to explain why.) In fact, more than one returning student told me that, despite the early hour, they were not to missed. Many of the tunes have strong beats and feature repeating lines, facilitating participation. And the Hebrew College tradition in many of the songs is that anyone can take a verse, while we all take the chorus together; I’ve loved hearing the variety of experience, accuracy, and ability that results. In this setting, not everyone sings well, but anyone can sing. I’ve never had an experience like selichot before, and I find that the songs stay with me all day.

Orientation was great mix of practical and spiritual. We met administrators, did icebreakers, told and heard personal journey stories, and started learning about core elements of the Hebrew College curriculum: personal and spiritual growth, tefila (prayer), beit midrash (literally, “house of interpretation”) and hevruta (study partners), and (good, old-fashioned) learning. I was particularly struck by something the director of admissions said as he welcomed us to orientation. He noted that school begins at an odd moment in the Jewish calendar, during the month Elul, a time of preparation for the High Holidays in which we reflect on teshuvah (literally, “return”). We atone for our sins by trying to make right our relationships with our fellow human beings and with G-d. Taking the first step in a new journey may feel out of sync with the prevalent theme of repentance, but, he said, “I know that for many us this beginning may represent a return in a very real way.”

This combination (which doesn’t even include the practical side of rabbinic education, which is to come in the curriculum), exemplified in the orientation schedule and in the introduction to the core elements of the school’s curriculum, is the essence of what I was looking for in a graduate program. I know I would not have been happy in a purely academic setting (as for example a Ph.D. program). I ultimately want to use my knowledge of Judaism in the service of others, and I am so excited to be an institution that recognizes the importance of spiritual and personal growth.

hannah, whose story is read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah

The seminar for first-year students is about the passages from the Tanakh that we read in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We’re looking at the primary texts in the Hebrew Bible as well as a variety of commentary on them: sections of Talmud and other rabbinic sources, modern and contemporary perspectives, and Israeli poetry. The rabbi who teaches the course is our class advisor (and will be teaching one of our fall semester courses); he assigned a text, Beginning Anew: A Woman’s Companion to the High Holy Days, as part of his commitment to looking at the primary texts through a feminist lens. I am thrilled that this perspective is given such importance, especially since so many of the High Holidays’ stories feature women.

This week marked for me the beginning of the hevruta study experience, as mentioned, a hallmark of the Hebrew College curriculum. Every morning after selichot, shacharit (morning prayer), and our facilitated Elul reflection, the first-year students split up into pairs to work, in the beit midrash, on the assignments for class that day. We switch partners every day (although we will eventually choose permanent study partners for the year). I was nervous about this part of the learning process. I’ve had a few experiences with hevruta learning, but nothing this consistent or systematic, and I have always thrived well in a very traditional, individual learning setting (lecture by professor and supplementary reading). I wasn’t sure I was going to like working in hevruta. To be sure, I chose Hebrew College in part because of its emphasis on hevruta learning, but I did so with trepidation, anticipating that it would be a challenge, pushing me out of my safety zone.

On Tuesday my first partner, who spent last year in Israel studying in hevruta, told me that it would ruin me for me classroom learning. I’m not sure I’m ready to go quite that far, but I have absolutely loved this week, completely confounding my expectations. It helps that I’ve jibed well with the four classmates that I’ve worked with so far: I’ve really appreciated their different strengths, and partnered learning has helped me to realize my own strengths (to wit, and unsurprisingly, grammar and translation of the Hebrew texts).

My final thought from this first week takes me back to the first day of orientation, Sunday — and my birthday. When I first found out the week’s schedule, I had the fleeting thought that it would be an odd way to spend my birthday (not least because I’d be among a fair number of strangers), but the more I considered, the more I thought that it might actually be perfect. The director of admissions in particular made a big deal of it, leading the group in “Happy Birthday” singing not once but twice, and when I thanked everyone after blowing out my candles, I said, “There is no place or group of people I would rather be on my birthday.”

And it really was true: I am incredibly privileged to be able to pursue this dream. What better gift could I ask for on my birthday than to be taking the first step on that journey?

Comments

  1. I’m so happy for you, Salem!! May the Lord continue to bless you as you seek Him. I pray that this time of study will be filled with peace and growth.

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