Friday, February 26, 2021

Kayla Jurkevich is studying at Midreshet Torah v’Avodah (MTVA) in Katamon, Jerusalem. She grew up in Edison, attended Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva in Edison for elementary school and Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston for high school. Her family davens at Congregation Ohr Torah in Edison.

Her next stop? Princeton University.

Why did you choose TVA? What’s unique about it?

I chose to study at TVA because I wanted high-level learning in the beit midrash while also having the opportunity to be immersed in the land through experiential learning. We learn a lot of Torah and Judaic studies in the classroom, but we’re also able to broaden our horizons and learn things outside the classroom through the various tiyulim and service learning programs organized for us at TVA.

What kind of goals do you have for your year?

I wanted to experience different places in Israel and visualize the stories I am learning in Tanach and Gemara while standing in the places where they happened. There’s such a rich history all over the country, ranging from biblical history to history of the modern State of Israel, and it all happened in this tiny country.

Additionally, I set goals for myself to internalize the things I learn in class, work to improve my independent learning skills, and improve my Hebrew speaking. I wanted to pick up books I haven’t yet learned, while also going deeper into ones I have learned previously.

What are you most excited to learn for your year? What is your favorite thing to learn?

My favorite class this year is Gemara B’iyun taught by Rabbanit Shani Taragin. She is incredible; she has such a high level of Torah knowledge and knows so much Talmud. I can tell how excited she is to share her vast knowledge with us as soon as she walks into class, and she helps us build our own sense of independence and confidence while learning Gemara by encouraging us to ask questions and leading deep discussions.

What has been the biggest highlight of your year so far?

In early December, TVA worked with Birthright Israel to organize a 10-day trip for us that began in the south of Israel and ended in the north. We did a lot of hiking; we stayed on kibbutzim and even got a tour of Kibbutz Ketura. We went to Eilat, Tel Aviv and the four different borders of Israel. That was definitely the highlight, because exploring the land was something I so badly wanted to do before even starting my year, and I was nervous that the restrictions in place to protect against the spread of the coronavirus would prevent this type of trip. It started soon after the first major lockdown, so I felt like I was breaking free and getting to see the land, immersing myself in Israeli culture, and further connecting to my Jewish identity. The trip was also a fun time to spend with friends and learn together; I learned many new things about Israel’s geography, politics in the region, and geology.

What kind of challenges have you faced coming to Israel?

When coming to Israel, I faced challenges that are common among new seminary and yeshiva students. For example, I struggled with getting used to living with eight other girls in my apartment, which was hard because we came from different households and backgrounds, but over time we learned to communicate with each other. I love my apartment and living arrangement now.

Like I said, the pandemic has really changed a lot about this year in particular, and one thing that was hard was knowing I wouldn’t be able to see my family for the year, but TVA is such a warm environment that it made that aspect pretty easy. Even though there were restrictions that made it difficult—we weren’t able to leave at certain points, and right now we happen to be in quarantine, so there definitely are difficult aspects—feeling that I’m able to talk to anybody in this school makes me feel supported.

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?

Due to many past students praising the trips and remembering them as their year’s highlights, I had expected TVA to put a larger emphasis on tiyulim over the classroom learning. What I realized upon arriving at TVA is that, even though the tiyulim are an integral and amazing part of the year, TVA doesn’t compromise its serious learning because of them. Tiyulim are not only a way to learn through a different experience, but they also enhance our classroom learning because it provides us with a break for us to process and reflect what we have accomplished in class. When we return from our trips, we feel refreshed and eager to jump back into our classes.

How do you think the pandemic has positively affected your year?

Even though there were difficult aspects of the restrictions from the pandemic, along with the fear we’re going to catch corona—the fact that we did have to stay in TVA for most of this year has allowed us to bond. After being in Israel for just a couple of months, I had already felt like I made many friends, and now it’s hard to believe that five months ago I hadn’t known the majority of my now extremely close friends.

TVA stresses that the building is our home for the year, and I think that idea applies this year more than ever. We spent many Shabbatot and weekdays together in this building, and there are endless opportunities for us to focus on our learning, become even closer with each other, and have a really positive experience in the face of so much uncertainty.

What kind of effect do you think bidud (quarantine) had on the students?

Bidud has really united us; I could not have asked for a better group to experience this crazy year with me. Each one of us at TVA contributes to the positive and fun atmosphere in the building, and helps our school feel like a true community. Even though bidud has forced TVA to reschedule trips and delay some programs, it has given us an opportunity to hone in on our learning inside the classroom and work to achieve goals we’ve set for ourselves. I feel like I was able to do a lot of independent studying as well as studying in chevruta or with a small group of friends, as well as thinking about the big questions brought up in our classes. With independent studying, I’m improving on my learning skills, and the fact that there was bidud, even though it was slightly disappointing not being able to go places or go out for Shabbat, it limited distraction and allowed us to focus on learning.

What are you most looking forward to for the rest of the year?

We don’t have that much time left, which is scary to think about because I feel like we’ve just gotten here, but I want to work on accomplishing as many goals as I can. I want to keep improving my independent learning skills on various subjects, including Gemara, and also to progress relationships and become closer with my teachers and friends. I cannot wait to return to my weekly volunteering with Friendship Circle, which is often the highlight of my weeks. I want to make the most out of the rest of the time I have here, broaden my knowledge of Eretz Yisrael as well as experiencing special periods of time in the year, like chagim.

How do you think this year will prepare you for the rest of your life?

A specific goal I’d set for myself to accomplish this year is to reflect on things I learn in and out of class, and ponder big ideas like how I define my relationship with God and what it means for me to be Jewish in today’s society. I think about Jewish values that are important to me and halachot I should start implementing into my daily routine. Because I plan on going to secular college, I want to think about how I manage my relationships with my peers now and how I will maintain those bonds and become an active member of my Jewish community on campus. Being in this environment is helping me think through these ideas and develop habits I’ll continue in the future.

Is there anything more you would like to add?

It’s comforting to know that, while all of the friends I’ve made here have their own personal goals, we’re all so supportive of one another. We are always there to support our friends who are making a siyum on a sefer or leading a new initiative. Often, when we discover that a group of us share the same goal, we enjoy teaming up to tackle whatever it is we have in mind.

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.