I’m currently looking out onto bright and fluffy clouds from an altitude 31000 feet above the Atlantic, heading west towards New York. This is going to be my second term at Yeshivat Maharat, where I am studying for semikha (rabbinical ordination). The bright sunshine above the clouds takes me back to the summer day four months ago when I entered Bet Midrash (study hall) for my first day of yeshiva. I was rather excited to meet my classmates, some entirely new, some whom I knew ‘virtually’ through social media and a couple who I had met and studied with a few years ago at Pardes in Jerusalem. Attending orientation week in person was particularly important to me because I am studying as a remote student. This means that while I continue to live in London, I am able to study with the help of technology, following the yeshiva’s 9-5 EST schedule at GMT.
My yeshiva day begins at 2pm and ends at 10pm. The bulk of yeshiva time is spent studying set text with a peer. Both the peer and the study method are known as havruta. The taught classes build on the material studied independently. Like classic semikha courses, the curriculum focuses on halakha (Jewish law) and Talmud. In addition, the Maharat course includes subjects such as bible, hassidic philosophy and the development of halakhah which are not strictly part of a classical semikha course. Being designed for practical rabbinic and communal leadership, it includes Pastoral Torah, a fusion of the clinical and spiritual aspects of pastoral counselling, as well as a customized leadership track.
After three intensive days in September faculty, students and subjects were introduced, I returned home and set-up my virtual bet midrash. I found three elements key to recreating the bet midrash atmosphere at home; people, sounds and sights. I’m incredibly fortunate to have Leah Sarna as a steady havruta to study with. She (with her macbook!) provides me with a portal into the students, dynamics and sounds of the Yeshivat Maharat bet midrash in New York. Having a book lined study from which to work is an additional bonus, as I find it fosters the feeling of being in a bet midrash and is handy for chasing up references.
I have found spending eight hours a day immersed in Torah study both exhilarating and exhausting. The exhilarating aspect begins during morning prayer, which includes Birkat haTorah, a blessing for Torah study, which I now recite with new inspiration, knowing that a good chunk of my day will be indeed dedicated to studying Torah. It continues when my sons return from school and find me surrounded by books, often in the midst of an animated discussion with my havruta, or my husband peeks into the study and gives me the thumbs up. While the intellectual aspect of study is enjoyable, adjusting to fitting all of the more mundane tasks into my mornings and week-ends has been more challenging.
As the end of the first term was approaching it felt a little like the battery low warning was flashing. My initial week in the Yeshivat Maharat bet midrash gave me a charge of energy, passion and enthusiasm which fueled the subsequent weeks I spent studying in my virtual bet midrash. I now look forward to spending the next 10 days physically present in the bet midrash, holding havruta discussions in person, catching the small talk at lunchtime and joining my fellow students for prayers and occasional songs.
Time for spiritual refueling.