Hannah Kirsch is studying at Mercaz Tiferet in Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef. She grew up in West Orange and attended Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston for elementary and high school. Her family davens at Congregation Ohr Torah in West Orange.
Her next stop: Binghamton University.
Why did you choose Tiferet?
When Tiferet visited Kushner, they gave off an immediate homey impression; even the teacher who came to present to us was very kind, which introduced me to the entire atmosphere of Tiferet. For example, we’ve been going to our teachers’ homes for Shabbat and chag meals, which I don’t think any other sem is doing, and that’s really meaningful to be able to do during these difficult times. It’s also a great place in terms of classes—there are a lot of choices and it’s easy to switch, which is good because I wanted to have a flexible year with my learning, meaning it adapts easily to my various interests. We’re also located in the middle of a community, which makes me feel as though I’m actually living in Israel. Overall, I’ve been really enjoying it, even though right now we are restricted to 1,000 meters. We go on walks, get coffee and sit in the park—it’s been a very good transition so far.
What kind of goals do you have for your year?
I have a few: First would just be to grow spiritually and religiously, and however that’ll look for me I’ll see along the way. I also want to become accustomed to my independence and grow in that way and in turn strengthen my own inner confidence. I’m the only Kushner girl here so it was a very new social environment, and that was nerve-wracking at first. In terms of religious growth, though, I’d like to become more spiritual and connected to Judaism.
What are you most excited to learn for your year? What is your favorite thing to learn?
I think I’m most excited about my class about Medinat Yisrael, which is Israeli current events and also how Jews in general relate to the land. Once a week we also have Jewish philosophy, and that really interests me; I’m excited to learn more about both of those things. That also just goes to show Tiferet’s diverse class schedule and what you can choose from—I also have halacha classes I’m really excited about, and those are two completely different ends of the spectrum.
What has been the biggest highlight of your year so far?
That’s an interesting question, because between quarantine and the chagim we’ve only really had about two weeks of classes, but I’d say meeting new, different people has been really exciting for me. It’s nice being able to take walks with new friends and get to know them and the neighborhood. We also went on a few trips in between quarantine and the lockdown. We visited the Kotel, and then the next day we went to Baba Sali’s grave, and then later we went tubing and speed boating, which was a great way to kick off the year. We all loved it.
What kind of challenges have you faced coming to Israel?
The number one challenge for me is being homesick; it’s really hard to be away from home, especially during a scary time like this. I was with five other girls during quarantine, but I didn’t know them and it was hard to feel happy and comfortable when you’re stuck in a room with strangers for two weeks, but I feel like I’m getting used to it and, luckily, those strangers became friends pretty quickly. Another challenge is getting used to becoming more serious about learning, especially with Judaic subjects. In high school, people were less mature and therefore the way we connected to the classes was also less mature, and I feel like here you’re in an environment where there are high expectations for your learning so you have to immediately live up to it. We also hadn’t been in school for six months, due to COVID-19, so we had to quickly get used to being back in a learning environment.
How has being here been different from your expectations? Did you feel prepared for your experience or did you have culture shock, and how so?
I would say that I was pleasantly surprised socially. I was mentally prepared for it to be a lot harder socially and it was a nice surprise to come here and find that all of the girls are so nice. It was more of a culture shock in terms of what I’m studying, because it was difficult to adapt to the idea of being completely serious about all of these classes and not having a break from Judaic studies at all, which was a little overwhelming.
How do you think the pandemic has positively affected your year?
Being able to just stay on campus really has brought us all closer together. I don’t think I would have been as close with so many people if we were able to go out all the time. Quarantine really helped with the transition, because instead of being thrown into this school with all of these girls I didn’t know, I was able to quarantine with five girls and have a foundation to start out with when I eventually met everyone else.
What are you most looking forward to for the rest of the year?
Probably just expanding my knowledge about all of the class subjects I have, because these are things I’ve been interested in for a long time, and obviously everyone is excited to be able to go farther than 1,000 meters and see the land.
How do you think this year will prepare you for the rest of your life?
I think instead of being a high school student with classes that just educated me on various subjects, here I’m learning about myself and what I’m capable of away from home and what I’m comfortable with, and that’s teaching me a lot about myself and will help me in life when I’m trying to navigate other things on my own.
Anything else to add?
I think it’s nice how all of the Tiferet teachers are really concerned with how we’re doing. We have chavrutas with them and we go to their houses for meals over chag. We also have off right now because of chag but they’ve been coming in to do programs for us, and over quarantine they had havdalah for us through the window—it’s facilitating a better start to the year than what it could have been with corona, and I’m really grateful for that.
Brooke Schwartz is a former Jewish Link intern and resident of Englewood. She is studying at Midreshet Amudim in Modi’in, Israel, for her shana bet year.