You may have heard that I am making a big change in my life.
After living in Philadelphia for four years, in a wonderful community with meaningful work and a delightful range of close friendships, I am moving to New York for a one-year yeshiva fellowship program. I've decided to make this move for a number of reasons, and I wanted to share a few with you, my friends and family, so that you can understand what I am doing and why it's meaningful to me.
I should back up a bit and say that it's unusual, in my experience, to write these things out and share them with my closest people. There are only a few adult life transitions that we mark in big ways--getting married comes to mind--when we take it upon ourselves to express personal meaning and purpose. Or rather, it's not often that I try to tell everyone about the meaning of my (current) life. It's a challenging task but precious in that I hope this letter will really share something of me with you.
So, what is yeshiva?
A yeshiva, traditionally, is a Jewish religious school. It is not the same as rabbinical school, and I don't plan to become a rabbi. In a yeshiva, people primarily study Bible and Talmud (ancient Jewish law), and also a variety of electives like literature, philosophy, ethics, singing, etc. Most of the time is spent studying ancient and medieval texts in the original Hebrew and Aramaic. A key feature of the school structure is that students learn in pairs, reading and discussing the text, and spend less than half the time in a group class with a teacher. The learning is therefore very self-directed and focused on what you and your partner are understanding and getting out of a text.
What is my program about?
From the website:
"Yeshivat Hadar is animated by three central goals:
• To foster a community of students who engage in intensive Torah study, prayer and action.
• To offer a passionate vision of traditional Jewish life as a spiritual path.
• To empower students to build and contribute to vibrant Jewish communities across the United States."
Sounds nice, eh? There is more.
Hadar was founded 3 years ago as the first egalitarian (men and women study together and are equal in all ways) yeshiva in America. (There are egalitarian rabbinical schools, but that has a different structure, being a professional program.) Traditionally, yeshivas are only for Orthodox men. The past few decades have seen the rise of Orthodox women's yeshivas and a few egalitarian non-Orthodox yeshivas. I am skimming over a lot of details here, but basically, this is a major innovation--today, if you want to get a serious adult Jewish learning experience, you either go to Israel or you get a Master's degree or you go to rabbinical school. Given, though, that deep learning is (for many people) an important part of a Jewish spiritual life, it is awesome that the Hadar founders created this setting where we can do learning for its own sake, in America, with a wide range of engaged and interesting people. I went to their summer program in 2008 and had an amazing time, which many of you have heard from me about.
Why am I doing this?
Short answer: because I want to, and I can, and it will be terrific.
Slightly longer answer: Okay, this probably won't get me a great job or solve all my existential questions. But it will be a wonderful way to spend time (talking about ethics and philosophy! The meaning of life!) and I do need some kind of change. I love my life, and especially my people here in Philly, but it has been hard to find the right career/job path. This choice may be a little extreme--it was VERY hard to decide to leave my community here, I would much rather just have found and landed an awesome job--but I do know that it will be a beautiful and meaningful time of learning. And I do think it's important, even at my advanced age, to do things that are beautiful and meaningful, even if they're not very well-paid, and especially when those things involve education. I'm still nerdy enough to just love learning for its own sake.
When you write applications for these programs, the questions are designed to get you to make big emotional and intellectual statements about why you are perfect for the program and it is the most important thing for you. I thought I'd share a few bits from my Hadar application, just so that you, dear friends, can read a little bit of my overblown persuasive writing.
About my experience last summer:
"...It was a breakthrough to spend time learning for pleasure and with the assumption that all this text was valuable (as opposed to the critical postmodernist stance I was taught to take in college), and it was immensely meaningful to live in a community of explicit ethical striving. Alongside that was the pain of keenly felt ignorance and the frustration of the yeshiva's insularity. I felt isolated on two levels—firstly, that my own language and cultural access was insufficient to fully connect me with what we were doing all day, and secondly, that we were this tiny institution in a vast world of people who wouldn't understand the project. I managed to cope with the former, but the latter would continue to bother me long after July had ended.
I came to yeshiva genuinely confused about what was at the core of the project. Was it information, being able to remember stuff? An encounter with history and philosophy? Knowing what to do, observance-wise, and why? I found (for myself, at least—I know there are lots of other opinions) at the beating heart of the beit midrash (library), another person, a bunch of other persons and their beautiful and infinitely valuable minds."
What's awesome about the Hadar yeshiva:
"What made the audacity and richness of yeshiva learning possible was powerful trust among the students and faculty. For me it was a palpable sensation. People mattered to each other, and worked actively to sustain curiosity and generosity, and draw each other out into bold, complex thinking. These are our best qualities as human beings, and we clearly thrive in situations of focused attention. It can sound rather poetic, but quite simply I wish that more people could have this attention from each other more often."
What I'm excited about:
"While I wonder about my abilities to really grasp the languages necessary to get comfortable with text learning, I am ready to try (again) with the foundation that I built last summer. More than that, I appreciated being close to so many people with great love and reverence for the these texts. I began to feel like part of a tradition—not a person fighting to get inside, nor critiquing norms from radical isolation, but a point on a continuum, or even let's say in a galaxy, neighboring some points, rather far from others, surprisingly wrapped, as time and space are warped, through history and thought. I saw, and see, the expanding universe of torah as a profound and lovely construct; thousands of years of human beings reaching for the Divine with great passion and commitment."
...So, that's my gutwrenching plea for them to let me in the program. It worked. Now, on to a few more practical questions.
But how will I live??
They pay us a small stipend. I'm looking into other sources of income, including writing and teaching. I have a little money saved, which is not something I want to dip into but reassuring anyways, and I have the opportunity to take a no-interest loan. Which is all to say, I am still figuring it out, and not excited to be always-broke in New York. It's a lot funner to be broke in Philly.
Where is this all happening?
The yeshiva is housed in a synagogue at 69th and Amsterdam. There are 18 students and 7ish core faculty members, so it's a nice cozy group. I'm living in Washington Heights (way uptown Manhattan) with a fantastic friend from last summer. Please come visit! We have two fold-out couches. Slumber party...
Are you moving back to Philly at the end of the year?
That's the plan. I am open to staying in New York if I get some terrific job, though, because that has been an area of my life difficult to figure out so far in Philly. I want to come back very much, though. I'm figuring out how to stay connected with the wonderful people of this city, and I really appreciate when people reach out to me.
...okay, that's all for now. Ask me more.