Through spirited debate and difficult conversation, Irit Wiseman is satiating her intellectual curiosity at Midreshet Amudim. She lives in Teaneck, and graduated from The Idea School in Tenafly. Following her year in Israel, she plans on furthering her academic career at Rutgers University. Her family davens at Shaarei Orah in Teaneck.
Why were you drawn to Midreshet Amudim, and what makes it different from all the other midreshot you were considering?
I love learning and take it very seriously. When I spoke with the head of Amudim, Dr. Julie Goldstein, she was super engaging and dynamic. She was very open to exploring really difficult questions and conversations while emphasizing the importance of text-based learning. Not just engaging in philosophical and conceptual ideas, but actually grounding them in the text and sources.
After talking to different alumni, I thought this was the place where I would find like-minded students. Even if we didn’t share the same opinions, we’d still be similarly serious and open to ideas.
What were your expectations coming into your gap year and how did they differ from reality?
Coming to Israel you truly feel the holiness and the gravity of the land. At the same time, in what’s supposed to be the holiest city in the world, there’s still garbage on the street, it doesn’t always smell good, and people are rude. It doesn’t ruin the experience; it’s just a funny contrast.
In terms of Amudim, my only real expectation, like I said, was I expected a certain mindset in the students. I’ve mostly found my expectations met. People chose Amudim because they like the focus on intellectual curiosity, intellectual honesty and academic rigor.
What was one goal you had coming into Amudim?
A major goal of mine is to improve my Gemara skills. I want to be able to open a page of Gemara and understand the flow and vocabulary.
What’s your favorite thing about the style of learning at Amudim?
Something I really enjoy is the inclusion of non-Jewish sources, either as a foil or a complement, to enhance the Jewish texts we’re studying. I think it’s possible to have a narrow view of the world if you’re only interacting with Jewish sources.
That sounds fascinating. Can you give some examples?
We have a class on Aggadah and we’re learning about different women in the Talmud. In the class we don’t just look at the stories and their commentaries, but we’re also analyzing certain tropes and roles these characters fulfill. So we examine other similar stories and compare them to the ones in the Talmud.
Another example is our Psychology and Tanach class. We use modern psychological thought to understand the minds of Torah characters. Not only are you reading the text, but you’re bringing in another type of thought to analyze them. It’s just another way of interacting with the text, another way of interpretation.
Is there any particular teacher that you personally connect with?
Rabbinit Leora Balinsky-Zinman. This may sound cliché, but she really listens and wants to hear what you say. She’s very sensitive, but also a powerhouse and is just a fun person to learn with.
Outside of seminary, what else do you enjoy doing in Israel?
I like traveling around the country. Israel is very different from America, so every time I go somewhere new I feel like I’m learning more about the land I’m living in.
It’s also fun to listen to what tourists think about different places. I went to the Israel Museum and I overheard someone say, “Oh, I didn’t know hamsas were Jewish?” Listening to an outsider’s perspective and hearing what they think about something I already know is incredibly interesting.
What do you love most about learning in Israel for the year?
There’s a lot of rich history in Israel. People have been here for a long time, so the human roots go deep. You’re able to get a glimpse into a different world. It’s more than a general love of history. Being in Israel, seeing the history of Yahudut, of the Jewish people, and actually building on it is really special.
We’re learning sefer Shmuel, and part of the curriculum is visiting all the different places that are mentioned in Shmuel. When else in my life will I be able to read a perek from Tanach and then actually go to the place mentioned?
What has been the highlight of the year so far?
On my second day here, I was walking back from the midrasha to my apartment and I passed by this park and everything smelled so sweet. The air and the trees and the dirt—literally the dirt smelled good. It suddenly hit me, this really is the land of milk and honey.
How does Amudim fit your outlook and personality?
The emphasis on intellectual honesty and deep Torah study really fits with my personal outlook. Even before coming to Amudim that was already my model for secular and Jewish learning. I value the process of learning, of disagreement and being proven wrong, because it allows us to reach greater understandings.
You’ve repeatedly emphasized the seriousness of the learning at Amudim. How do you maintain that seriousness without letting it overwhelm you?
Everyone here is really positive and funny. So even when we’re having those difficult conversations it’s still infused with good humor. If you take yourself too seriously you drain the fun out of learning. We’re serious, but there’s also lots of silliness and fun. It’s not one without the other.
Where do you go to relax after a long day of learning?
Right now I’d probably say my apartment. It’s usually quiet there and it’s a nice place to wind down and decompress.
How do you think this year will prepare you for the rest of your life?
It’s a time to build new habits and recognize everything you do is a choice. Recognizing the power you have over your whole life is incredibly rewarding. You made the choices to get where you are and you can make the choices to get better in the future. There’s a little bit more leeway in Israel than in high school, so the things you choose to do here are more meaningful.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, it’s a time to set new habits, recognize how much you’ve done to get where you are, and how much power you have to do things in your own way.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’ve moved around a lot. I moved to different schools, a different state, and things like that. I’ve gotten used to the rhythms of making new friends, but I’ve found sometimes the relationship can seem pretty forced. It can feel more like a performance.
At Amudim, it’s all very natural. The friendships I’m making feel real. It doesn’t feel like I’m forcing a personality on myself. I think it’s really lovely that I’m meeting people, making relationships and forming real bonds.
David Deutsch of Woodmere, New York, is a Shana Bet student currently studying at Migdal HaTorah in Modi’in.