Sophie Levitt is about to get a taste of college life. Big ideas. Dormitories. Cafeteria food. But Levitt is actually just a junior at Pittsburgh Obama 6-12, who was recently accepted to the Tikvah Institute for High School Students, a two-week exploration of politics, Zionism and Jewish thought.
The pre-college summer experience she’ll have at Yale introduces young Jewish people to “world-class academics” and a “better tool kit for critical thinking,” said Sam Richardson, engagement specialist at The Tikvah Fund. Started in 2012, the program welcomes high school juniors and seniors from Jewish day schools, public or private schools.
Though attendees are split by educational background (day school students are called Tikvah Scholars, non-day school students are called Maimonides Scholars), the opportunities are largely the same, explained Richardson.
Tikvah Scholars will be given a “more traditional limud approach,” as materials will be read in Hebrew and Aramaic. Maimonides Scholars will receive a “more Western approach,” with materials in English, he added.
While there is value in approaching texts from alternate angles, the assemblage of diverse students fuels the enterprise. When different students debate topics including the notion of justice, the components of a liberal education or a nation’s makeup, there is ample opportunity for growth and awareness, explained Richardson.
“One of the fascinating things is watching these kids interact. There will be a kid who has never been to a day school and can hold their own in Gemara and vice versa,” he said. “The students realize how different we are yet we share so many things in common.”
Levitt, who will participate as a Maimonides Scholar, said she has enjoyed similar experiences through her work with the Diller Teen Fellows Program. Housed at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, Diller is a leadership development program for Jewish teenagers in grades 10 and 11. Levitt praised the Diller experience for both enabling her to visit the Jewish state for three weeks last summer as well as investigate Diller’s core values of Jewish identity, community service, leadership and Israel.
Participating in the Tikvah Institute for High School Students should complement past undertakings. Spending two weeks in a dormitory just steps away from the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale and encountering new ideas will be reminiscent of the Diller experience, she said.
Though Levitt will likely learn from others, there is a hope that she, too, can serve as teacher. In discussions regarding American Jewish life, hearing from a young adult who resides in the setting of America’s largest anti-Semitic attack should inform a conversation.
But apart from being from Pittsburgh, the simple fact that Levitt lives outside of a larger East Coast Jewish metropolis adds value to a collective experience that should be encouraged, explained Abby Schachter, a past participant in Tikvah programming.
“I very much want as many Pittsburgh Jewish high schoolers to attend this program as possible,” said Schachter. “Like all Tikvah programming, it is going to be at an extraordinarily high-level, intensively demanding and will be very strongly and positively geared toward being a strong Jew, and since most Jewish Pittsburghers of high-school age are not getting a Jewish education, I would like there to be greater access to this.”
Levitt said she is prepared for the intensity of the experience, but said the program has already been very welcoming to her. In fact, she received an email saying that part of her registration fee will be waived “as a small token of recognition for the challenge that your community faced this past October.”
Reading the email “brought my parents to tears,” she said. “I was speechless. I still am. I get this big smile on my face, and it reminds me that there is good in the world. People want to help Pittsburgh.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.