Akiva Student Testimonials
We are proud to share words of Torah delivered in June of 2016 by ninth-grade students reflecting on their first Akiva year.
Emily B. - Class of 2019
In the beginning of the year, I was really nervous to be starting at Schechter Westchester. This was so scary for me because I would be starting in the second month of school. I did not know anyone prior to starting and the Shabbaton and orientation had already happened so people had already made friends. Not only was I nervous about making friends, I was also nervous about the dual curriculum; I was about to dive into subjects that I had no exposure to. I did not know anything about Judaism except for the basic things we would do in my family such as parties on the High Holy Days, Passover Seders, and my personal favorite: getting presents for Chanukah.
Click here to read all of Emily's message. After I successfully mastered the alef-bet this fall, my Jewish learning kept going. I was slowly able to formulate sentences in Hebrew and indulge in class discussions. I began to feel connected to a religion I didn’t really know about before. Learning Hebrew was important to my feeling more connected to Judaism because it is the main language in most Jewish texts such as the Tanakh and the Mishnah, which we spent our year studying. Those are just two examples of the many texts that Judaism bases its ideas and laws on. Being able to translate and understand Hebrew was important to having a deeper understanding of what I was learning about and really connecting to it.
Being part of the Akiva program was also an important factor in my connection to Judaism. Having a group of people who were also going through the same experience as me was very beneficial. We all stepped out of our comfort zones greatly this year in different ways; there was never a dull moment because we would always have the best times. I am so thankful to have my Akiva friends and teachers throughout this journey. They really made this a crash course of Jewish learning a fun and enjoyable process for me. I couldn’t be more proud of our accomplishments as a group this year. Eventually, I did make friends easily because of the welcoming kehilah that is Schechter Westchester. This year, I didn’t just change schools and make new friends; I was able to step outside my comfort zone and have a great school year. I am so happy that I found a deeper connection to my religion, which can only continue to flourish as the years go on.
Jordan S. - Class of 2019
Before I heard of Schechter Westchester, I lived in the city, living an abnormal life compared to other kids my age. I was homeschooled. I was not aware of my Jewish identity until I enrolled in the local Hebrew school and visited my great-grandmother on Sundays. In Hebrew school, I learned prayers and biblical stories, as well as their significance in the Torah. From my great-grandmother, I learned about living as a Jew in Europe during the time of the Holocaust and in America. I learned about the German occupation and her journey from Germany to Switzerland to America. She told us about how hard it was to start her life all over again and what it was like to lose the comfortable lifestyle she had in Germany as a girl.
Click here to read all of Jordan's message. I came to understand the hardships the Jewish people faced and how to be a Jew both then and now. As I grew older, I started going to synagogue regularly with my friends and family, actively participating in services, and keeping Shabbat (sometimes). When I moved out of the city to Hastings-on-Hudson with my family, my Jewish identity grew a little more. I went to a new Hebrew school, made new friends, and learned more about Judaism. I went to services a lot more and quickly learned the prayers to prepare myself for my bar mitzvah.
Unfortunately, my brother and I were sometimes teased and pushed around for wearing tzitzit and kippot in school. Our tzitzit were toyed with, and we were mocked and called rude slurs. We stopped wearing them to school to avoid further harassment, but we wore the garments at home and embraced our faith.
When I first heard about SW, I was hesitant to go because my closest friends were at my old school. Having to start all over and make new friends is scary on top of knowing that you are also moving (thankfully, we only moved up the road). When I heard I was going to SW, I was thrilled but also nervous. I did not know what lay ahead and asked my parents questions about the school daily. The pamphlets I received eased me a bit, but I still had so many questions. When I shadowed at school, I saw how Judaic classes were structured and how the other academic classes were set up. After shadowing, I felt ready to take on Schechter Westchester.
Upon meeting the Akiva class for the first time, I immediately knew that my new classmates would be some of my closest friends at school. There was never a dull moment with the Akiva class and I was always ready to learn about Hebrew, Tanakh, and rabbinics. I found my Judaic classes very interesting and enjoyed them a lot. Tankah was very interesting to me since I was able to learn new Biblical stories and relate them to other stories. I was able to dissect the text, find loopholes, and note the extra details that stick out in the stories. There were always discussions or debates about subjects relating to the story we were studying.
In rabbinics, I learned a lot about Jewish history and Jewish law. In the class, we were able to learn about certain periods in Jewish history and hear stories from important Jewish leaders of that era. We engaged in Jewish law frequently, going over the issue of Tza’ar and learning how to compensate for it.
In Hebrew, we learned a fair amount of the language in a short amount of time. Before this year, I only knew a handful of words; now I'm able to write out structured paragraphs. Our teacher honed our reading and speaking skills, making sure we are able to speak well without too many mistakes. Now that it is the end of the year, I am grateful to this school for giving me a new lens into Judaism. Now I know how to be Jewish in my own way. I am now able to speak the Hebrew language, engage in the Torah, and connect ancient law to modern law. I am grateful for my new friends who have helped me get through the year through studying, preparing for trials, and even just making me laugh. I’ve had so many great times with my friends this year in the class and I am glad I came to this school where I can openly express my faith daily.
Molly C. - Class of 2019
To be Jewish. What does this mean to me? When I switched schools, I never thought about how the Jewish culture would become so significant in my life. I always thought I switched because I wanted to start anew, make some nice friends, and hopefully challenge myself academically. However, the true challenge that I discovered was not in my academics, but in discovering who I am.
At the beginning of the year, I thought my Jewish classes would be easy As and have no significance compared to my other classes.
Click here to read all of Molly's message. I was always involved in Hebrew school and went to synagogue on the high holidays, but this was just forced on me by my parents. It wasn’t an option whether or not I wanted to go. However, going to Jewish day school was my choice, and in making this choice I really didn’t consider the Jewish studies classes. Now, my perspective on Jewish culture and classes has completely changed.
I sometimes used to think of Judaism as just a lot of singing pointless prayers, commandments, reading crazy stories, and wearing certain types of clothing such as a kippah. Now, I don’t think of Judaism as pointless or crazy or annoyingly strict; I have begun to think of it as meaningful, powerful, and spiritual. Judaism is a part of me.
I began my studies with Rabbi Zisser in tefilah education, which taught me the meaning in prayer. I had no idea what these prayers meant; let alone how to read them. I thought this would be impossible; but Hillel once said, “He who refuses to learn deserves extinction.” I decided I would challenge myself. I learned the prayers and their meanings, and some more Hillel quotes, of course. Now I am able to take my prayer and channel it to heal others, sing in joy with my classmates, connect with God, and most of all connect with myself. I saw how prayer allows me to reflect on things I’ve done, my dreams and goals, the good and bad within myself, and truly connect my mind, body, and soul as one.
Next was Hebrew. Hebrew taught me the meaning of tradition. I am pretty sure that at first the only words I knew how to say were shalom and todah. All I thought was how everyone spoke Hebrew in school and I completely didn’t understand anything. As I learned, however, I realized how amazing this language truly is. It is the language of our people, a language that’s been around for thousands of years and that makes it feel all the more special to me. It connects me to the traditions that bring happiness and sadness into our lives.
Then there is rabbinics. Rabbinics taught me the meaning of thinking of others and the best ways to fix a situation. Rabbinics was all about the law. This year we learned about personal injury law. It is very difficult to decide how to handle compensating someone for their injuries. It isn’t like you can just send them a fruit basket with $100 and say “feel better.” It was about looking at people’s pain tolerance, their amount of humiliation, and how much money they would pay not to have to experience the pain. The Mishnah comes up with several different ways to help fix a situation like this by looking at the different perspectives of the perpetrator and the victim. I learned that not everything is so easy to fix, it takes thoughtfulness, perspective, and lots of trial and error.
Lastly, there was tanakh. Oh tanakh, how I never thought I could be a lawyer. Tanakh taught me the importance of looking at detail, arguing for what you believe, and that there is good and evil within us all. I used to think that all the Jews in the Torah were perfect. I was wrong. They are manipulative, angry, emotional, and down right crazy. The best part is that they are supposed to represent us. We are emotional and manipulative, but the Torah also conveys that we are loving, kind, and faithful. Each detail in the Torah allows you to look at the character in a different light or from a different perspective. This led to a lot of arguing. Everyone reads the Torah according to how they feel. I think that is beautiful because how you read the Torah reflects your perspective on your own life and values. However, I constantly found myself lost because how could one character be so manipulative and yet be so kind? In our trial, I was able to defend my client, Yaakov. Most people look at Yaakov as manipulative when he deceived his father but I changed the class’ perspective by showing that he was insecure and doing it simply because his mom said to do it. This allowed us to look at Yaakov differently. In the end, the judge’s overall perspective of him was manipulative. I think I could argue this forever, but the point is that everyone believes something different about each detail. Tanakh showed me the darkness and light within our hearts, and even in the characters of the Torah.
I hope that I was able to show you a different meaning in Judaism. To me, Judaism is not about the prayers or the Torah; it’s about the meaning in our lives. I look at my Judaism now and think that to be Jewish is to argue, to see others and yourself in all shades of black and white, to fix problems, to follow tradition, and to have faith. So the next time you pick up a prayer book, or roll your eyes when you know you have to sit in services or even hear the word Judaism, I want you to think of the meaning it gives to our lives and how it’s not what’s just on the surface but what’s inside of you.
I want to give a few “shout outs” to wrap this up. I would like to thank my teachers for giving me this amazing Jewish journey to discover the meaning in my life. I would also like to thank all my classmates for being my laughter, picking me up when things get rough, and being the best Akiva family I could ever want. Lastly, I want to thank my parents for giving me the opportunity to fulfill the meaning in my life, I am truly grateful. May you be blessed to find the meaning in your own life. Thank you and amen.
Gabi N. - Class of 2019
Hi everyone and good morning or shall I say boker tov, now that I know how to say it in Hebrew. I want to start my Dvar Torah by talking about what being Jewish means to me. Even though I had gone to Hebrew school, had my bat mitzvah in Israel, did Jewish traditions in my home, and had been going to a Jewish summer camp for many summers – I never really felt that connected to Judaism. I thought that being Jewish meant reading pointless prayers, studying Torah, and observing holidays. My perspective has totally changed. Being in Akiva has shown me how rich a culture and religion Judaism truly is.
Click here to read all of Gabi's message. Before this year, I only saw tefilah as prayers that we needed to memorize. Now I see it as something beautiful. I never understood why we took long silences or why we did certain movements during a certain prayer. Over the course of the year I have learned so many prayers and to appreciate them, and have even been able to lead Pisuke Dizimra and read Torah!
Next, I want to talk about my favorite class, Tanakh. Before Akiva I saw the Torah as something we just read every week, but now I have come to understand that it is so much more. It is something to learn from with morals and values instilled within it. There are so many different ways to interpret the Torah; hearing all the different perspectives from our class has helped me to expand my mind. Being in this class has made me feel closer to my Jewish ancestors. Before this year, I didn’t know much about them and thought everything they did was good. Now, after studying them, I can see how they have made bad decisions or took wrong actions; I see them as normal people rather than God-like figures. After taking this course, I have also found a new love for Israel. After seeing how important it was in the Tanakh and how certain cities and places in the Tanakh are still around today makes me feel connected. I see Israel as more than just a country, but as a place that was critical to our history and a place where I will always be welcome.
Being in Mrs. Bennett’s rabbinics class has been so much fun with so much laughter and smiles. After taking her class, I really understand why we have certain customs and traditions and where they came from. This year we spent most of our time on personal injury laws and now I know what really goes into creating a law and how much dispute there can be over a particular topic. Before this class I didn’t see the purpose of certain customs such as: why we don’t use electronics on Shabbat, why there are no contact sports in our school, or why we have to dress modestly. Now I am able to understand why we have these laws. Although I may not agree with all of them, I am able to understand their view. After learning about the Jewish holidays, I have really come to appreciate them more. Learning about Jewish history has really helped me see how much we had to go through to get to where we are now. Mrs. Bennett has really made me feel more proud of being Jewish.
Learning Hebrew this year was so much fun. My mom always told me that Hebrew is a fascinating language and I have come to agree! Hebrew is an ancient language built upon roots of words that was brought back to life after so many years of it not being spoken. When I came to this school, I knew only a few words and now I am able to create sentences and paragraphs and even translate pasooks in the Tanakh!
I want to thank all the teachers who helped me in Akiva. You have really made me love Judaism and made me excited to learn even more. I want to thank Mr. Mond and Mrs. Bennett for teaching me about Jewish history’s timeline; something I knew nothing about. I want to thank Rabbi Zisser for teaching me the prayers and so much more, and for helping me practice for leading Torah and Pisuke DiZimrah. If it weren’t for him I don’t think I would have had the courage to do what I did in tefilah. I want to thank Morah Sally for making it fun to learn Hebrew. Finally I want to thank my parents for sending me to Schechter Westchester. Shalom!