By Hana Halff ‘21
In a couple of months I went from being the only Jewish and white girl in my grade at a large New Jersey public school, to attending the Abraham Joshua Heschel School and immersing myself in an all-Jewish environment. For most students, the transition from middle school to high school might mean harder homework, cuter guys to crush on, and more responsibility or freedom. But for me, it was a culture shock.
I feared that I wouldn’t fit in at Heschel because of my different experience in middle school. Fortunately, Heschel made it very easy for me to feel at home. Starting the year with a special freshman orientation day, I quickly made friends with people from different backgrounds. As I tried out the different t’fillah options, I noticed how each minyan welcomed every student despite his/her individual beliefs, traditions, or experiences. I came to realize that I wasn’t such an outsider after all.
After a day or two of attending the Heschel School, I no longer felt uncomfortable in the new environment. However, I still had trouble getting used to parts of the daily routine that seemed normal to everyone else. For instance, I could not understand how people left their bags, jackets, laptops, or phones just lying around. In my former school, you had to be very careful where you put your things. Even sealed away in lockers, money, phones, and sneakers would go missing on a daily basis.
Another part of Heschel I could not wrap my head around was the amazing school breakfast and lunch. In my old school, an average school lunch was only available to low-income students and consisted of a burger that very much resembled roadkill. One time, we went on a class trip to William Paterson University, and we were allowed to eat whatever and however much we wanted from the school cafeteria. Our grade was so excited that people ate seven plates and then stuffed their purses with french fries and waffles for the bus ride home. At Heschel, we are graced with such a lavish lunch that it is sometimes difficult to appreciate our privilege.
In middle school, we also started our day differently. It began with the Pledge of Allegiance and a daily aphorism shouted over the loudspeaker:
“You better live everyday like your last because one day you’re going to be right.” -Ray Charles
“Don’t count the days, make the days count.” – Muhammad Ali
In Heschel we don’t have morning announcements, but we do have the Heschel Commitments that are posted on every wall and repeated by every teacher.
“We are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have the answers.” It was this Rabbi Heschel quote that guided me through my first week of high school. It encouraged me to challenge ideas and to make an effort to learn, especially when something seems unfamiliar and different.