September 22, 2019

Academically Driven, Musically Passionate

Gidon Amsellem, 17
High School: YULA Boys High School
Going to: Cornell University

Whether he’s taking five advanced-placement classes or playing in the Jazz Ensemble, YULA senior Gidon Amsellem is a straight-A student to be reckoned with. Academically driven, artistically passionate  and Jewishly committed, Amsellem sees a future in which he’s able to help people as a Jewish leader and, following in the footsteps of his maternal grandfather, as a doctor.

“My mother’s father was a general surgeon and a great man,” Amsellem said in a phone interview. He explained that his grandfather — who died three years ago —  had come to the United States from Iran to do a medical residency and stayed.  “He had a great impact on my family. He paid for my Jewish education, and as a doctor, provided free practice for people who didn’t have insurance. He was also supportive of charities.”

Amsellem’s family is Moroccan on his father’s side and Iranian on his mother’s side. He’s involved in the Sephardic minyan at YULA, where he also served as gabbai, an experience that moved him spiritually and gave him a mandate for his future commitment to Judaism. 

“It’s a responsibility that brings me closer to God, to know I can help other people to do [Jewish things]. If the Hillel needs help, I want to be there, especially for the Sephardic community.”  

Music has “always been my main thing,” Amsellem said, since he started playing in ninth grade. “I picked up the clarinet and started playing. I wasn’t good. I got better.” After the Jazz Ensemble’s saxophone players graduated, Amsellem “got myself a sax and started playing — that’s been my main instrument from then on.” He is also a vocalist and also plays EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument). He recently performed at YULA’s Open House, and does charity gigs. Leaving the ensemble has been emotional, he said. “It’s the end of something I’ve put a lot of work into.” 

“BIMA Arts Program (at Brandeis University) really opened me up as a musician and as a person. Almost all of the participants were Jewish, with not too many Orthodox people, but all found Judaism interesting.”

He especially noted the impact of the BIMA Arts Program at Brandeis University, which he attended for three summers while at YULA. BIMA brings together arts faculty members and peer musicians for artistic discovery and Jewish experiences. Each summer gave him the opportunity to focus on music/theater/vocal music or sculpture, as well as on biblical texts. 

“BIMA really opened me up as a musician and as a person,” Amsellem said. “Almost all of the participants were Jewish, with not too many Orthodox people, but all found Judaism interesting. You’d see other people’s interpretations of the text in their art and it helped you visualize what that understanding of the text was. It developed me to be loving of all other Jews and all other people no matter where they came from.” 

Amsellem plans to spend a pre-college year at Yeshivat Orayta in the Old City of Jerusalem before heading to Cornell to start his pre-med studies. Although he’s not on track for a career in music, he knows that the future is still unwritten. 

“I’ll definitely keep playing music for the rest of my life,” he said. He can even see the possibility that he might do it semi-professionally, performing at bar and bat mitzvahs and weddings.

“Everything’s a possibility,” he said.