Graduate Profile: Willie Roth, Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary

A common spirit runs throughout Yeshiva University: the mandate to matter.

Students of all ages and backgrounds come here to pursue a range of professional and personal dreams, from scientific research and medicine to law, Jewish education or public policy. Our students seek to harness their unique talents and YU education to make a lasting impact on the world around them. This spring, when they graduate from YU, these new alumni will hit the ground running.

In the weeks leading up to CommencementYU News will feature one remarkable graduate from each school, reflecting, in their own words, on their time here, their passions and their dreams for the future.

Meet the Class of 2013.

Willie Roth

Following his semikha studies at RIETS, Willie Roth will attend Harvard Law School in the fall.

Name: Willie Roth

School: Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS)

Hometown: Teaneck, NJ

Passion: Halakha and law

What is unique about semikha studies at RIETS?

RIETS is the only place where a rabbinical student can learn from first-rate talmidei chachamim [Torah scholars], poskim [deciders of Jewish law], rabbanim and mental health professionals all under one roof. Whether you’re in rabbanus [rabbinate] or Jewish education, a rabbi’s job entails many different responsibilities. You need training indifferent areas and exposure to many kinds of experts. RIETS offers a comprehensive and holistic approach to a rabbinical career.

RIETS also enabled me to continue learning seriously inits kollel while simultaneously gaining practical experience for the future. The school values the professional advancement of its students and provides generous scholarships toward master’s degrees at both YU’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration and the Bernard Revel Graduate Schoolof Jewish Studies.

In addition to finishing my studies at RIETS, I’m about to complete a master’s degree in medieval Jewish history at Revel, which I couldn’t have done without support from RIETS. I decided to study Jewish history because I wanted to broaden my knowledge base—I think it’s important for rabbinic figures to have expertise and interest in many areas. I’m also interested in exploring the field of legal academia in the future, and a lot of what I studied in Revel, such as History of Halakha with Rabbi Ephraim Kanarfogel, is a strong foundation for that—the development of law, legal history and legal theory over time.

You’ll be attending Harvard Law School in the fall. Are there similarities between your passion for Gemara and your fascination with law? How does the study of one enrich the other?

Willie Roth2The requirement to understand concepts clearly and have information at your fingertips is important in law school and the intellectual rigor you develop through years of learning willdefinitely help you with that. A lot of the critical analysis you put into learning is also related to the approach people take in law school—how do you master knowledge and distill legal principles from a practical application of the law?

Still, my interests in Gemara and law are divergent. Halakha and Gemara are, first and foremost, the word of God. That can’t be understated. What’s so amazing is that you can really establish a unique, personal relationship with Torah because your ability to grasp it is totally up to you. You can get information from teachers, but to be successful at learning requires effort and motivation of your own. Once you’re able to achieve that, the relationship you have with it is singular and unique. I also like the study of halakha because it’s its own system with its own principles and concepts. I guess secular law is likethataswell. It’s the application of the principles to context and situations that really interests me.

Has there been a particular rabbi at RIETS that has made an impression on you?

My most memorable experience here has been the four years I spent learning in Rav Michael Rosensweig’s shiur [lecture]. The rigor and intellectual demand that it requires is unparalleled by any of my academic pursuits to date. The shiur’s thoroughness, meticulousness and depth have profoundly impacted not only my learning, but my outlook on life. And to learn from Rav Rosensweig, a person whose wisdom is outdone only by his character, has been a tremendous privilege.

Willie Roth3However, part of the shiur’s greatness is that it expands well beyond the classroom. The hours I’ve spent in the beis medrash [study hall] every day preparing, and perhaps more significantly reviewing shiur, making sure that I’ve fully grasped the concepts and opinions, is an experience like no other. Being able to devote my full attention and energy to the pursuit of something so valuable and important is empowering and invigorating. The friends I’ve made “in battle” late at night as we together tried to process and clarify everything we heard that day are so unique. I feel the friendships we’ve created and centered on Torah learning and values willlastwell beyond my years at RIETS.

What extracurricular activities were you involved with during your time on campus?

I was very involved in high school programming during the year and spent six summers as a madrich [advisor] on the NCSY Summer Kollel in Israel. I started there as a camper and eventually worked my way up to being head counselor, which is an experience that’s helped me in many aspects of life. I learned how to work on a team and as an individual. I also learned that if you’re committed to an idea or a program, you’re willing to work any job at any level because you realize how essential each part of the working whole is. No job is beneath you. There’s also something really wonderful about enabling like-minded high school students to connect with each other and create a social network of guys whose relationships are built not only on having fun, but on values they identify with, through learning. Being part of that electric environment, where people are spending their free time getting excited about learning, is great.

At RIETS, I was also the editor of the Beis Yitzchak, its annual Torah journal, and I helped with programming for the Shavuos Yarchei Kallah. That program was really incredible because it was started and fully executed by another RIETS student, Rabbi Shay Schachter, and more than 850 people attended—it wasn’t a small endeavor. The fact that students here can take their idealism and execute a program like that, which has gotten really positive feedback, is unbelievable.