Racheli Finkelstein is studying at Michlalah in the Bayit Vegan section of Jerusalem. She was born and grew up in Teaneck and attended the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge for elementary school and Bruriah for high school. Her family davens at Beth Abraham in Bergenfield.
Her next stop? Stern College for Women.
Why did you choose Michlalah? What’s unique about it? What kind of student do you think would attend your program?
At the beginning of senior year, when there were so many decisions to be made—college, seminary, so much information flying around—I sat down with one of my teachers and we discussed the pros and cons of each seminary. I felt that Michlalah matched perfectly with what I wanted to accomplish, due to its warmth and growth-oriented environment. The teachers they have here, the role models, the students, would create an environment conducive to my growth, and I knew I would get the environment I wanted out of my year from Michlalah.
I think something that’s really unique about Michlalah, and one of the main reasons I chose it, is that it’s a very positive learning environment. Everyone here wants to learn, and everyone’s choosing what they’re learning; we can completely customize our schedule, and everyone’s really motivated, so being in this positive atmosphere around a lot of other people who want to grow, we motivate each other.
What kind of goals do you have for your year?
Generally, my goals are to be able to form a connection with Israel and find myself as a Jewish person. I’d like to get the foundations and build on what I’ve been learning from my past Jewish education, and then to really live my life with a strong connection to Judaism. Friendships are also very important. I’m excited to be able to go forward with what I’m gaining here and be able to bring it into the future.
What are you most excited to learn for your year? What is your favorite thing to learn?
I really like learning Tanach. I think that the way they teach it here is different from the way I’ve been going through it my whole life; they learn it in-depth and bring so many new dimensions to the Torah in ways I’ve never seen before or thought to look at before. An example is a class I’m taking that explores the entire story of Mechirat Yosef from many different angles. I think it’s amazing to learn Torah my whole life and then come here and realize that there are so many more dimensions I never realized existed. There are many teachers here, Tanach teachers specifically, who have so much to offer and so much to give, and I’m really excited to learn from them.
What has been the biggest highlight of your year so far?
We are actually still in lockdown (though we’re no longer in quarantine); we haven’t really left campus—but what’s so interesting about being all together at all times is the way all of the girls mesh. Thank God it’s a big program; there are about 90 girls here. Since no one is going anywhere, we can form friendships and connections I don’t think would have happened during a normal year, where everyone’s moving around and you don’t really get the opportunity to sit down and bond together. This is going to be our second Shabbat in quarantine in a row, but last Shabbat was really beautiful and I’m excited to have that experience again. Being with the girls on campus has been a really big highlight.
What kind of challenges have you faced coming to Israel?
So, it was definitely hard to quarantine for two weeks; that was probably the biggest challenge so far. But the school is amazing; the program is great. We quarantined over Sukkot and they made it beautiful for us, but at the end we were ready to get out and walk more than five steps. Quarantine was a hard way to start the year, but even though it was only two weeks ago at this point, we’ve put it behind us and it doesn’t define what the rest of our year is going to look like.
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 was definitely prepared. The school prepared us before we came; they sent out videos, we had Zoom meetings and classes, and we met the staff online. We were really prepared and we knew whom to turn to when we needed help. There are lots of small differences. Like the first time I did laundry here, my friend and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out their system because there are just a lot of subtle differences, and we got very confused. It’s very interesting. Additionally, something that’s fabulous is the campus staff—not just the teachers, but the people who take care of the day-to-day things. Since we’re spending so much time on campus, we’ve gotten to know the campus staff, and they are amazing. They are really attuned to our needs and provide stuff without us even asking. They keep presenting new things and giving things we wouldn’t have expected, and we’re so surprised and happy.
How do you think the pandemic has positively affected your year?
As I said before, definitely being on campus and meeting the other girls. I think also we are all in a unique situation, because we didn’t have an end of senior year, so we’re coming to school but we haven’t been in school for so long. My friends at home aren’t in school; they’re online or in a different environment, but we all get to be together here. It’s amazing that we’re in Israel and learning in classes and everything is going really well with that.
What kind of effect do you think bidud (quarantine) had on the students?
So, we definitely made great friendships with the six girls we were with, because that’s just a bond you will never break. The other thing that’s great is our beautiful campus, so every bidud room had an outdoor space we could go to, and since we were quarantined on Sukkot, they built us little sukkahs. When we were outside eating and singing we could hear each other, so the energy and positivity that Sukkot created for us started our year on a really high note. That positive foundation made us able to build on it and hit the ground running.
What are you most looking forward to for the rest of the year?
I’m very excited to learn. The teachers here are amazing; we just started classes this week and I’m already blown away. We can choose our own schedules, so each girl can select the classes and teachers she will connect to the most. I’m taking a mix of classes and styles and am exposed to many different things. I’m also excited to make friends and meet new people. The people here are from all over the world—Chile, Brazil, New York—and I’m hoping at some point to go out and tour Israel and see what’s beyond our gate, even though we’re here in this unique situation.
How do you think this year will prepare you for the rest of your life?
I think that the connections I make here are going to be able to stay with me for the rest of my life. The strong friendships and bonds I’m forming are going to last for a very long time. In addition, the combination of learning, being in Israel, and being in the seminary environment creates a springboard to grow from. Once I get that experience, I’ll be able to take it forward and really build on it in the future.
Is there anything more you would like to add?
The thing I wanted to say the most is thank you to the staff here. They’re amazing. Neither the students nor the staff have gone through this before, but the way they meticulously plan everything and put so much effort into what goes on here, makes it seem as though they’ve done this 10,000 times. All of the students here agree—the way the staff members have gone above and beyond is really unprecedented and amazing.
The Jewish Link is looking to feature students studying in Israel. If you know someone who might like to be interviewed, please send their name, school and contact information to [email protected]
Brooke Schwartz is a former Jewish Link intern and resident of Englewood studying at Midreshet Amudim in Modi’in, Israel for her shana bet year.