Andrew Shafer is studying at Yeshivat Aish HaTorah in the Aish Gesher program in the Old City by the Kotel. He was born and grew up in Englewood, New Jersey, and attended Moriah in Englewood for elementary school and SAR Academy for high school. His family davens at East Hill Synagogue in Englewood.
His next stop? NYU.
Why did you choose Aish Gesher? What’s unique about it?
I love my program. I chose Aish because it’s not just the average gap year; it has many different programs within Aish HaTorah, and guys from all over the world come. It has a baal teshuva program, where people who aren’t religious come. The rebbeim are trained to really bring inspiration and fire for the guys.
Aish Gesher is more for people who come from Modern Orthodox programs, but really all of the programs within Aish are fitting for anyone who wants to build a relationship and connection to God. It’s also right by the Kotel; it’s probably the best location you can get.
What kind of student do you think would attend your program?
I think someone who’s looking to think more about the world and is a self-motivated person. Also, someone who is able to take a step back and really take in the different patterns of the world and the different ways and paths that the world is going in. As in, someone who is able to distance themselves from their average days and needs and wants, and is striving for a meaningful life.
What kind of goals do you have for your year?
First is to get in touch with myself and my thoughts, and to bring more light and positivity into the world. And definitely this is a year for building skills and learning the Talmud and Tanach, but also having a relationship with God is probably the number-one thing that Aish HaTorah stresses.
What are you most excited to learn for your year? What is your favorite thing to learn?
Specifically, my favorite thing to learn is chasidut, more specifically the Tanya, but also just the general overarching goal of not forgetting that what you’re learning is only there to bring you closer to God. I love chasidut because it definitely gets in touch with your thoughts and your feelings, and it really builds the “you,” if that makes sense; it brings a strong foundation to your belief and your outlook on the world. When I learn Halacha, I would say Halacha represents the smaller details in the relationship with God, but still probably the most important. But chasidut really builds the foundation for your motivation and it can ignite the fire in your soul.
What has been the biggest highlight of your year so far?
The biggest highlight of my year? Every Aish Thursday night tisch. Every Thursday night, Aish has a band, and we have an amazing tisch every single Thursday night that gives fire for the whole week. With the tisches—the first thing I would say, it’s a feeling that you can’t really put into words. At Aish, we’re really a very close family. Not only the Gesher program, but all of the programs within Aish, and we’re able, every single Thursday night, to come as a group and really just open our hearts and sing and dance to Hashem and just really have no fear and just fully live.
What kind of challenges have you faced coming to Israel?
I would say specifically this year with the corona rules there have been some challenges with quarantine and different things relating to corona, but Aish happened to handle the situation very well and gave us the best possible situation that we could have had.
Furthermore, building learning skills is definitely very challenging, and being away from home for a full year is challenging, but I think that Aish is a family of its own and you really make a lifelong bond with all of the guys here from all of the different programs.
How has being here been different from your expectations? Did you feel prepared for your experience?
I didn’t realize the depth of the intellectual side of Aish HaTorah, and I didn’t realize how inspiring the philosophy would be, and just the vibe that you get from the rabbis, most of whom didn’t grow up Orthodox or religious and chose to come into Judaism with so much passion for teaching and learning Torah and having a relationship with God.
How do you think the pandemic has positively affected your year?
Of course there have been many negative sides, but overall, in terms of individual growth, I think that with the lockdowns and the bidud (quarantine), it really gave all of the students here time to just focus on themselves and not have any other distractions or outside influences, so we could really get the full fruits of Aish HaTorah. We were really able to just sit down with the rabbis and our friends and just, over multiple quarantines, sit and think and meditate on big life questions and goals that we’ve had.
What kind of effect do you think bidud (quarantine) had on the students?
For the self-motivated kids, bidud was of course tough and challenging, but had some very positive effects on the students. Some of my best experiences were in bidud, because it really gave me a chance to get close to the guys here at Aish, and it gave me time to just sit and think about my goals for life and my goals for having a connection and a relationship with God.
What are you most looking forward to for the rest of the year?
I’m most looking forward to really establishing the lifelong relationship with my rabbis and with the kids here, and just solidifying my relationship to God and my skills for learning Torah.
How do you think this year will prepare you for the rest of your life?
I think that this year was definitely a life-changing year, where for the first time we actually had the time to just sit and think about our questions about life and our goals for life and how we actually want to live our lives, instead of just being swept up by the modern-day culture, and we were able to fully live instead of just being locked into the day-to-day stress and anxiety of the average secular student.
Is there anything more you would like to add?
Yes. About the rebbeim—I think people don’t realize how special the rebbeim really are. These aren’t just rabbis who come from similar backgrounds; these are rabbis who really come from all over the world and all over the religious spectrum, but also, they’ve all reached a point where they’re so on fire with life and they’re truly living. The wisdom and the knowledge they can give you from being completely secular people to now being at Aish HaTorah is just really inspiring, and it’s also inspiring to see the happy and meaningful lives these rabbis live.
Also, I would say the actual rabbis in Aish HaTorah are highly connected and very high up in the rabbinical community, which I didn’t really realize when I came here, but when you get here, you understand how these rabbis are just living such a high and ignited life.
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.