A Torah Revolution in Need of Troops

letter-447577_1280

There are currently 800 secular Jewish women in Israel looking for a chareidi woman with whom to learn Torah over the phone, and no study partner available. “Couldn’t be,” you’ll say. But, unfortunately, it is.

The Ayelet HaShachar organization has been in contact with 2,800 secular women who want to learn Torah half an hour a week over the phone. About 50% of the secular women come via Rabbi Zamir Cohen’s cable TV program Hedabrut; most of the rest are recommended by a friend already in the program. And these 2,800 women represent only the tip of the iceberg. Mrs. Tzili Schneider, who runs the telephone chavrutah program for Ayelet HaShachar, has a list of another 15,000 names of secular Jewish women with whom she has not yet made contact.

At present, however, only 2,000 chareidi women have responded to Ayelet HaShachar’s advertisements seeking chareidi women prepared to commit to a half-hour phone chavrutah once a week.

Mrs. Schneider is convinced that frum women have the power to bring about a revolution in Israel. Secular Israeli women, who have experienced firsthand the breakdown of their family life – the lack of trust between spouses, a lack of respect of children for parents – are thirsty for the wisdom upon which chareidi women build their homes.

When her first child was born at Hadassah Ein Kerem, Mrs. Schneider says, she had almost no contact with secular women in the maternity ward. But today, many births later, she finds that secular women are eager to talk to her, and never more so than after her older children have come to visit.

Mrs. Schneider’ confidence in the power of chareidi women comes naturally. When her mother, Mrs. Torah Baumol, was about sixty years old, she went to see a doctor about a growth on her neck. The doctor told her that the growth was more serious than she thought: the disease had spread throughout her body, and nothing could be done for her. Mrs. Baumol smiled.

Assuming that she had not understood him, the doctor again explained how grave her situation was. Mrs. Baumol kept smiling. This time the doctor asked for the explanation.

“Why shouldn’t I smile,” Mrs. Baumol replied. “I was raised by the best parents any child could ask for. My youngest daughter was just engaged, and all my children and are going in the path that my husband and I prayed for.”

When the family was sitting shivah, the doctor came to the shivah house to meet the family that brought such a smile to a dying woman’s lips.

Now, Mrs. Torah Baumol was a well-known tzadekes. But her daughter is convinced that the satisfaction she felt in her life is shared by tens of thousands of chareidi women, and it is their secret that secular Jewish women are seeking. There is no need to fear that one does not know enough to teach, or won’t have all the anwers, Mrs Schneider tells me. Secular women are not looking for intellectual debate; they are looking for meaning in their lives. And every chareidi woman is a PhD. in Judaism as far as they are concerned.

As proof, Rabbi Shlomo Ra’anan, the head of Ayelet HaShachar, says that one of the most popular seforim on secular kibbutzim is Kitzur Shulchan Aruch. Far from finding the halacha dry, secular Jews describe it as a like reading a suspense novel, as they learn that each action and every moment has meaning.

OVER CHANUKAH, I met with six chareidi women who participate in phone chavrutot. They ranged in age from the late ‘20s to late ‘50s, and came from all sectors of the chareidi world. Mrs. Schneider even told me of a match she made between a Yiddish-speaking woman in Meah Shearim and a single-parent, whose father is an Arab. Today the latter spends every other Shabbos in Meah Shearim with her phone partner.

Their common message was how much they had gained from the program. In time, the half hour of weekly learning over the phone developed into a deep personal relationship – face-to-face meetings, numerous brief conversations in the course of a week, and an involvement with one another’s families.

One young woman, who has spent the last four years with her husband doing kiruv work in Ramle, nevertheless finds something uniquely rewarding about her phone learning. “The half an hour on the phone is entirely ruchniut,” she said. “There is no need to convince someone to learn; they are seeking to learn.”

Another woman – the sister of one of Eretz Yisrael’s most prominent roshei yeshiva – came together with her young study partner – a recent bride wearing a sparkling white tichel. They entered the room holding hands and remained touching throughout much of our conversation. When they started learning, the kallah was an officer in the army. Since then she and her husband, also an army officer, have moved to a religious moshav, where the husband is spending part of the study time allotted him by the army for full-time beis medrash studies. As they left, the mentor said, “She is my child; her children will be my grandchildren,” as her young study-partner nodded vigorously.

The wife of a maggid shiur spoke of her awe for her study partner, who lives in Acco in a building filled with Arab families. The latter’s three older children are all in Chinuch Atzmai schools, and the fourth, a nine-month old baby named Yosef Hatzaddik, already reaches out his hands for negel vaaser in the morning. “Who is closer to the Ribbono shel Olam – me or my chavrutah?” was a question asked by more than one of the volunteers.

The youngest of the volunteers I interviewed told me that lending support to her study partner, as the latter made the difficult decision to drop out of a prestigious art academy, made her realize how fortunate she is to be born into a chareidi family. A number of the volunteers spoke of their excitement at being forced by their partners’ questions to learn the reasons for many customs and halachos that they had previously observed as a matter of course.

In many cases, the chavrutot have become family affairs. The only time a young woman soldier had free to learn was on Friday afternoon. That required her tutor to enlist her entire family’s assistance so that she could finish her Shabbos preparations early and spend the last precious minutes before Shabbos alone in the study speaking on the phone. The questions that Ettie asked that week became a staple of the family’s Shabbos table.

Each of the women with whom I spoke described the thirst to learn of their study partners. One of those study partners, a senior official at Isracard, now has a large group of workers gathered around her desk the day after her chavrutah to hear what she learned the night before.

“Every woman can give over,” says Mrs. Schneider, “and therefore everyone is obligated to do so.” And in case I won’t take her word for it, she tells me about a meeting she and her husband had with Rav Elyashiv. When the Rav’s attendant tried to hurry them along, the Rav waved him away, and added, “This comes before everything.”

The Jerusalem Phone Number of Ayelet HaShachar is (02)-586-9281.

Originally published in Mishpacha magazine.

You may also like...

22 Responses

  1. Steve Brizel says:

    Baruch-I read the JO critique ( and the review of) Off The Derech. IMO, the critic, as opposed to the reviewer, offered a response that such conduct simply couldn’t be happening in the Charedi world.

  2. Menachem Petrushka says:

    Mizrachi Stream/Sephardi factions

    I think the above refers to that Shas Educational System especially the Haredi College founded by Rav Yosef’s Shlita daughter.

    See snippet below from “Why an Ashkenazi academic is voting for Shas”
    SHIRA LEIBOWITZ SCHMIDT, THE JERUSALEM POST may 7 2006

    “A SECOND area of moderation and openness is the attitude to higher education. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the founder of Shas, has given full backing to his daughter’s Herculean efforts to establish a college. Adina Bar-Shalom started the Haredi College in Jerusalem five years ago to enable haredi Beit Yaakov graduates to obtain fully recognized academic degrees in several professions”

  3. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “the author delves into why the Charedi leadership only banned continuing education for women rather secular education in its entirety…To counteract this threat to the status of men, Charedi leaders have decided on a practical implemntaion of Achashverushes procalmation that “each man should be the ruler in his house””

    I don’t believe that to be the case. I think that the issue is foreign influences, and the delay of marriage. This could apply to boys as well, theoretically. The issue is framed in terms of a B.A. degree, because potential teachers do not get an education just for the thrill of it, without an economic gain.

  4. Jewish Observer says:

    “For those of us who are viscerally challenged and do need philosophy, however, the chareidi educational system does not provide it.”

    I think you are referring to machshava; Jewish thought or philosophy. I think of hashkafa as “point of view” or orientation. Obviously, intellectual giants of previous generations agree with you that machshava is important, as evidenced by the many seforim on machshava that exist. But all of these seforim are based essentially on early works; i.e. Talmud, Midrash, Zohar etc. as viewed through the hashkafa of their respective authors. So, inasmuch as machshava seforim are a reformulation of yesodos founmd in primary seforim, the notion of learning machshava as a discipline is necessarily a modern one.

  5. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “I assume that the ban referred to Mizrachi teachers in the sense of Dati-Leumi”

    That would make sense. However, I saw today an old article in Haaretz about Sephardi girls in Israeli seminaries, and the term “Mizrahi” was used consistently in place of “Sephardim”. So we need to get ask someone who read the original editorial.

  6. LAWRENCE KAPLAN says:

    I assume that the ban referred to Mizrachi teachers in the sense of Dati-Leumi, and the Haaretz writers innocently misunderstood the reference to mean Mizrachi in the sense of belonging to Edot ha-Mizrach.

  7. Menachem Petrushka says:

    Baruch

    Questions of semantic aside, the real issues lie between the lines of the article and Kol Korsh. In an incisive piece by Miriam Teicher, the daughter of Slabodka Musmach and a professor at Bar Ilan, http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/809281.html the author delves into why the Charedi leadership only banned continuing education for women rather secular education in its entirety. Her conclusion is the Gedolim are trying to socailly engineer away one of the contradictions of Charedi life.

    The almost universal adoption by Charedi men of a life of Torah study as a “profession” has caused its monetary value and stature to dccline. All professions including Torah Study are goverened by the law of supply and demand: Cetreris Paribus(all other things being equal) an increase in the supply of a good or service will lower its price. Rabbi Rosenblum has complained,in a previous article about the phenomenon of the decreased stature of the Torah profession in the eyes of charedi public without specifying its cause.

    Charedi women on the other hand have been forced to go ro work to support their husbands and their large families. Achieving an “advanced” degree with high earnings potential these women become the real “baalhbatim in their housholds. This ceratinly upsets the traditional concept of family life and further lowers the self esteem of the Avrachim. To counteract this threat to the status of men, Charedi leaders have decided on a practical implemntaion of Achashverushes procalmation that “each man should be the ruler in his house”

  8. Baruch Horowitz says:

    In the current edition of the Jewish Week(1/5/07), there is an article on the topic by Liel Leibovitz, and the quote from Bayit Neeman went as follows:

    “For some reason, we have found, in recent years, that courses are taught by foreign lecturers,” ran an editorial in Beit Ne’eman, Yated Ne’eman’s women’s supplement. “Some of these lecturers *belong to the Mizrahi stream*, and others, to great shame, are secular through and through … there is danger here of contamination.”

    Compare with the Haaretz quote in the previous post:

    ” The absence of ultra-Orthodox lecturers with academic degrees in diagnostics and consulting required bringing in lecturers from “outside” the community. Yated Neeman’s women’s supplement, Bayit Neeman, blasted the trend of bringing in lecturers *from the “Sephardi faction”* and even “completely secular” ones, warning of the women students’ defilement. ”

    Can someone quote from the original Bayit Neeman? While I don’t think that Mizrachi teachers should be automatically rejected–ki haadam yireh laniyim v’ashem yireh lalevav–still, the Jewish Week translation is substantially different than the Haaretz translation. Perhaps there is confusion between the terms “Edot Hamizrach” and “Mizrachi”.

  9. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “Very often these arguments are overly simple or completely wrong. Hashakfa is taught, but not in a way which is intellectually rigorous or which gives tools for dealing with alternative ideologies.”

    Binyomin,

    Faranak Margolese mentions this issue in her book on “kids at risk”, but she was challenged in a recent critique published in the Jewish Observer(the JO had previously published a positive, overall, review as well).

    I do believe that there will be some change in this area. The phenomenon of “kids at risk”, the Slifkin Affair, and the blogosphere will force the Yeshivah World to, in the words of Rav Matisyahu Salomon, “… strengthen all of our children, and give them the ammunition with which to fight back when their beliefs are attacked”.

    I think that this will take place according to the Beis Halevi’s understanding of the Baal Hagada’s response to the rashah; i.e., we are strengthening ourselves, as opposed to debating others. I am therefore uncertain if this will meet the bar which you set in your comments.

    Personally, when I am involved in internet discussions or debates on other blogs, I am careful to admit any perceived weaknesses in my own positions, and I avoid flippant sophistry–better no answer than a weak one– especially since I never received any training in the dialectics involved in discussions of ikkerei emunah with those challenging or questioning them.

  10. LAWRENCE KAPLAN says:

    It woulf be nice if Jonthan Rosenblum addressed the question posed by Dr. Charlie Hall and myself. Or does he just post and run?

  11. Baruch Horowitz says:

    Menachem,

    Anything Haaretz writes on Chareidi life should be viewed with suspicion, as it conveys the negative feelings of its authors to the extent of being unprofessional by American journalistic standards. Thus, “the rabbis were mostly infuriated…”, and the issue of womens’ education is put in terms of “[women being able to] break out of the ‘teaching ghetto’ “. On the other hand, charedi interests are sometimes not competently represented even in their own media. Rabbi Berel Wein is quoted as saying “don’t judge Judaism by [some] Jews”, and one should probably not judge Chareidim, or chareidi-Orthodoxy by some of their own editorials!

    Assuming the Haaretz accurately quoted the editorial in question which “blasted the trend of bringing in lecturers from the “Sephardi faction” and even “completely secular” ones, warning of the women students’ defilement”, then I believe that this represents an extremely insular faction. While it is understandable that a school would not want to change its character by changing the Ashkenazi majority, speaking of “Sepherdai faction” in such terms is simply unacceptable.

    While the crux of the issue of teacher training is protecting charedie education from influences hostile to Torah life, the reader of such articles also focuses on basic issues involved in a Charedi lifestyle. As I see it, living in the American, and particularly the Israeli chareidi communities involve trade-offs. They include acceptance of a more non-nuanced rejection of secular education and society, a more intense Rabbinic authority structure, a more intensely regulated media , and some degree of economic hardship. All of these items are perceived by outsiders as negative aspects of life.

    On the other hand, one is able to partake in an unadulterated and unique kind of spiritual life, and perhaps take greater responsibility for the continuance of the Torah nation. Presumably, many charedim view this trade-off as worthwhile, and are satisfied with the above reality. It is also possible that with time, the Israeli system will move slightly in the direction of the model of the American Yeshiva World, in terms of being more accepting of advanced vocational training for both men and women, and accepting the value of secular knowledge, including acceptable elements of secular psychology–chochma b’goyim taamin. Also, as is known from past experiences, there are conservative, or zealous elements, in the Chareidi world who resist any type of change.

    This article about teacher education is merely a prototype of an article which generates negative internet posting, elsewhere on the web, even amongst Orthodox bloggers. Often, people focus on the language of the posts in question, accusations of “charedi basher” are then hurled, and the discussion doesn’t get to the heart of the issue. I think what worries and concerns bloggers is the possibility that the Israeli Chareidi model might be imported by Western countries. This is an entirely understandable thought, and there is nothing wrong with discussing it respectfully.

    Notwithstanding that the American Yeshivah world, influenced by its more insular factions, appears to be shifting to the Right, I still think that in reality, adopting the Eretz Yisrael model in its entirety is an unlikely occurrence, given the different environments. The fact that the Israeli chareidi community, as per a recent Jewish Observer article, discourages potential Olim who are unable to accept the above trade-offs and “leave their hashkafos back in America”, would seem to show that the differences in the nature of the two communities is indeed still being recognized and respected, at least at the current time.

  12. Binyamin says:

    JO,
    your comment confused me. Do chareidim have a strong understanding of hashkafa, or they “get it”. It does not bother me if someone does not feel a need for philosophy. Someone who is happy with their lifestyle will generally not need any deep ideas to defend it. For those of us who are viscerally challenged and do need philosophy, however, the chareidi educational system does not provide it.

    I should clarify what i mean by hashakfa. I am not refering to the important concepts of how a ben/bas torah should live – that is taught very well. I was refering to the philosophical foundations of judaism. This is taught irregularly. It is also taught in the manner of defending obvious truths, without presenting any other way of viewing the world. for example, “The world must have been created by G-d – just look around at its beuty and egularity! How can people believe we come from monkeys?” Such an argument does not present any legitimate alternative, and is therefore very easy to defend with basic arguments. Very often these arguments are overly simple or completely wrong. Hashakfa is taught, but not in a way which is intellectually rigorous or which gives tools for dealing with alternative ideologies.

    (( The reason that hashkafa is taught like this is partly because we do not want to allow the secular world into our schools. Defending our view of judaism would expose the students [and teachers] to alternative ways of doing things. This is why I mentioned the importance of isolation in my previous post. ))

    Again, I do not think that there is anything wrong with this for someone who does not feel a desire for a better understanding. It is also not likely to be a practical problem in the chavrusas set up by Ayelet Hashachar. Secular women are also not known for having a comprehensive ideaology, and here they are already looking for something else. The problem that I was rasing is that chareidi women (and men) do not have the tools to respond to secular culture, and have always been told to stay away from it. Even if in this setting it is not a practical probelm, it is like;ly that many do not feel ready for the interaction.

    hp,
    What organization are you part of?
    Do you give your members special training, or do you accept them based on what they learned in high school? I assume you train them. Ayelet Hashachar is not offering this training.

    Are chareidi women expected to try to debate with there secular colleagues, if they work in a secular business setting? I now that men are told to do kiruv when they can, except that they should not hitchhike and get stuck in a discussion they can’t handel.

  13. Menachem Petrushka says:

    Rabbi Rosenblum,

    The Charedi Leadership has just banned women from taking advanced(BA) degrees who do so to support their husbands’ learning(see link below). The gedolim have thus confined educated Charedi women to the profession of teaching where the supply far outstrips the demand. Now there will be many women without much to do who can participate in your worthy program.

    http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/808316.html

  14. Jewish Observer says:

    “Most graduates of the Chareidi schools know very little hashkafa”

    this is an unfair and, by definition, inaccurate portrayal of charedim. Hashkafa is not a subject that you can “know”. It is one’s overall orientation to life. Charedim understand in their gut the primacy of Torah, and live their lives through this prism of this ikar. People who don’t organicially “get it” need volumes of “hashkafa books” to explain it. These are unnecessary for charedim because they understand it viscerally are are living it!

  15. hp says:

    Binyamin,

    We must live on opposite sides of the planet. Perhaps on different planets altogether. The organization I am involved in has many deep thinking, philosophically thought out and intellectually developed women who engage our secular brethren on every level. Torah hashkafah, versus halachah, is the primary focus.

    Our women, as well as our men, are doing an incredible job, inspiring others with their Torah wisdom while having the intellectual honesty and personal integrity to do the requisite research as the need arises.

    Ours is not a religion of feel-good culture, nor does it embrace a “leap of faith” approach. Our men and women who are saturated with the wisdom of Torah are ideal representatives of Torah-true Judaism.

  16. Binyamin says:

    The social isolation of the Chareidi community is the foundation of its commitment. It does not deal with the threatening outside world, and instead creates an independant and self-supporting structure. Hashkafa is not the basis of commitment – what is important is “preserving our community and our heritage”. (Yes, I know haskafa is part of our heritage.) Most graduates of the Chareidi schools know very little hashkafa, and even what they know is presented as catechisms, not intellectual challenges. They are meant to acccept the philosphy, not think about it. (I recently asked my rabbi a basic (though not simple) hashakfa question. He gave me a comletely unacceptable answer. If my religious observance would have depended on that conversation, it would have ended.)

    I am not sure how Israeli women are expected to deal withtheir secular counterparts. They can teach halacha and alot of nice ideas, but they generally cannot explain or justify why mitzvos are important.

    I presume that the secular women are not looking for philosophy, and they just want to learn about the culture. However, at least basic philosophy is an important part of such discussions. It seems that there are many religious women who cannot provide that to someone who does not already think like them.

    I do not think that too many women are worried about the minimal exposure to secualr culture that is involved. However, it is possible that many of them do not feel comfortable taking on such a job where they are lacking basic preperation. This may not be a real problem for the project, since the secular women are not looking for intellectual discussions. It is still a problem to get volunteers who were always told not to take the risk of intellectual exloration.

    There are also many people who are scared of doing kiruv. I have seen signs up warning bochrim not to hitchhike, partly because they may engae the driver in a religious discussion, which they will lose. (Wouldn’t it be better to teach them enough that they could win, or at least remain religious?) I was also once at a speech where the rabbi strongly opposed kiruv for anyone with young kids at home. (He was stressing the importance of total isolation).

  17. Baruch Horowitz says:

    Ayelet HaShachar is an impressive organization. There was an article about it or a similar organization for women, recently in the Jewish Observer; it’s another example of a hunger l’shmoa eis divrei Hashem.

    Drs. Hall and Kaplan ask a good question. Although the Israeli religious scene is much more polarized that the American one, theoretically, a Religious Zionist woman who’s observance of Halacha is impeccable, shouldn’t pose a problem just because she may say the tefillah for the Medinah. On the other hand, Religiou-Zionist institutions would need to take on chareidim as well in their outreach programs.

    Religious Zionists can reach in places, and in ways where chareidim could not. Lichyot B’yachad is an Israeli OU program where teens from several religious high schools meet with secular students to study together and learn Torah texts. The truth is that there are enough opportunities for RZ, Lubavitch and chareidim to engage in kiruv, whether jointly or individually, and everyone should recognize the other’s efforts. As the Chafetz Chaim said, when there is a fire burning, one shouln’t care about the purity of the water.

  18. Isaac says:

    There’s another organization, Torah Umesorah’s Partners in Torah that looks like it has a similar program, and an Israeli division, Yedidim. Does anyone know what differences there might be between Ayelet HaShachar and Yedidim?

  19. LAWRENCE KAPLAN says:

    Charlie: That is the question I was going to ask, and I would like Jonathan Rosenblum to answer. Particularly when there are not enough Haredi women voluteering for the project. Are frum learned Modern Orthodox women not “Kosher” enough?!

  20. Charles B. Hall says:

    Can a modern Orthodox women participate as a study partner? I know several who might be interested.

  21. Barry Simon says:

    It might be useful to include contact information (telephone and/or email) for Israeli woman to use to volunteer for Ayelet HaShachar.

  22. Jewish Observer says:

    this seems like an incrediblre opportunity for the frum to show how sincere we are about all the negative demontrating we do. with this we can do something positive toward e.g. shmiras shabbos, demonstrating our love for our brothers, which I am sure is sincere in many charedim. let us see if the torah world can rally around an opprtunity like this as well as it does around its many bitul campaigns.