With a modicum of disbelief, I have embarked on my senior year at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles. While printing out applications for colleges and seminaries in Israel -- which will likely stay on my desk until immediately before their due dates -- I ran across an interesting question: "What do you believe to be the most essential thing you've learned throughout your high school career?" I was truly puzzled. They see my grades and SAT scores, and now they actually want me to remember what I learned?
I have been fortunate enough to attend Orthodox private schools for my entire life, privy to an in-depth study of scripture. As I entered high school, and the learning became both more challenging and fascinating, I wondered whether my rapid note taking was simply in order to pass a test or for true spiritual enlightenment. The lives of Abraham and Sarah? The importance of lighting Shabbat candles? The mitzvah of buying new clothing for a holiday (which for any Jewish girl is almost every day)? What is the most important thing I have learned?
Suddenly, it dawned on me. On Yom Kippur afternoon, we read the book of Yonah, a minor prophet with a major message. All too well do we know the story of Yonah being swallowed by a whale and saved from the fury of a terrible storm. But right before Shamu entered this story, the sailors who suffered due to Yonah's indiscretions cast lots to find the perpetrator who caused this storm to befall only their ship. As each lot fell on Yonah, the sailors asked what big "no-no" he had committed to incur the wrath of God. "Tell us now, because of whom has this evil befallen us? What is your trade? And from where do you come? What is your land? And of what people are you?" (Jonah 1:8). In Yonah's reply, I found the answer to my intriguing question and a potentially great college essay.
"I am a Hebrew and I fear Hashem, the God of the heavens, Who made the sea and the dry land" (Jonah 1:9).
I know what you're thinking: How is that an answer? Was Yonah's seasickness affecting his thought process? Nope. Before understanding the brilliance of this answer, think for a moment about how you would answer these questions. "Well, um, I didn't follow what God told me to do. I'm, um, a student and I hail from the Valley. And, oh yeah, I am of the Jewish people." That's all I've got. But no, in Yonah's answer he searches within himself to find who he truly was -- a God-fearing Jew.
Our sages pass down the idea that only through concentrated learning of the Torah and other books in scripture can we truly understand our world and how we must survive within it. By means of learning we come to understand laws, philosophy, and develop a true pride in being a son or daughter of Israel; thus, becoming more than just what we are, we can become who we are.
As I begin my college search, there is one question I can't help but ask myself: Will living in a world where language, fashion and food are constant battles lead me to forget my upbringing? Will I be just another addition to the melting pot? No, I assert, I will not. And I know why -- because of everything I learned throughout my long years in Jewish day school.
Voila! I finally had an answer. Through myriad hours of learning, I have managed to cultivate a strong conviction in the Jewish faith that I am sure cannot be damaged. Every time that I open the Torah and learn the secrets that lie behind each word, I feel a great surge of pride that I can call myself a Jew.
So, what will I tell the seminaries (when I finally get around to filling out my applications)? There is not one thing that has changed me or led me down a God-fearing path, but, rather, it is the accumulation of my many years of Torah study that have come together to define my true persona, that of a modern Jewish woman.
My advice to teens and adults alike is to take advantage of every moment you can learn, whether through speaking to someone knowledgeable, reading a book, or even taking a quick peek at the explanation of the week's Torah portion online. You will be surprised how quickly these fragments influence your daily life and improve the foundation of your faith and Jewish identity.
Now, equipped with new notebooks, a laptop, and an understanding and appreciation of talmudic study and my role as a Jewish woman -- I'm off.
Jina Davidovich is a senior at YULA Girls High School.
Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the November issue is Oct. 15; Deadline for the December issue is Nov. 15. Send submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.