by Bracha Turner.
Four community leaders spoke with The Jewish Home about their motivation to learn and teach and captivate others through Torah study.
Mrs. Nomi Freeman is the daughter of the renowned Argentinean Kabbalist, Professor Avraham Polichenco, o.b.m.. She is well known for her seminars that teach spirituality to children and she counsels people looking to find their spiritual path.
Mrs. Shulamith May is a proud mother of 7 married couples, and a grandmother to 30 grandchildren. She has been involved in chinuch in Los Angeles for over 35 years. She presently operates as the Menaheles (Head of School) of Bnos Devorah High School.
Mrs. Adinah Sher was previously a shlucha (emissary) for the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Northern California (S.Crus). A wife, mother and grandmother, she currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband. For over twenty years, she has specialized in learning and teaching about the intricacies of the Beit Hamikdash.
Mrs Neima Solomon has been an educator for over twenty years and is presently the Hebrew Studies Director for Girls at Tashbar Sephardic Yeshiva Ketana in Los Angeles. She has taught in various schools and also mentor teens and women in the city.
How do you motivate women in your community to learn Torah?
Mrs. Nomi Freeman (“NF”): I was asked to give classes and people came. Audiences feel motivated when the class is compelling, relatable, and applicable. I think people want spirituality that relates to them in that they can use it to improve their personal lives. I want that too, so I try to deliver it and that’s what draws people come to the classes.
Mrs. Adinah Sher (“AS”): Well, part of it would be by giving classes and trying in the class to be inspiring. Then it does whet other people’s appetite. And also I have chevrutas (learning partners) that I meet up with. Part of it is setting an example and part of it is teaching and putting an effort in the teaching to try to be exciting and inspiring.
Mrs. Neima Solomon(“NS”): It’s a very hard question. To really learn you have to work hard and not many always want to invest in it. My role is really in children’s education and I believe if a young woman had positive responses to learning in high school and elementary school, too, then it is a natural consequence that she herself will desire to continue when she leaves school and seminary. If she had a good connection with her Hebrew teachers (or her Rebbe) and she had positive feedback for her effort, I believe that she will be more likely to continue learning. Otherwise, the general attitude would be the relief of “Yay! I’m done with school! Now I can live my life!”
I find that learning is very personal. There are more and more classes for women, but because women tend to be more focused on raising their families, they won’t necessarily be looking for additional types of learning. I can see it on a personal level. I teach a Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) shiur on Shabbat and there you get a specific kind of crowd. Only those who are serious about learning will come; other women will prioritize with other happenings and preoccupations unless it’s a compelling subject. Pirkei Avot is not deep. It’s a light subject and we’re also discussing a lot of current events. The committed ones that learn more seriously always show up but it’s easy to find other things that will engage your time
I want to add something. The way the community is set up is that the young community want to connect with their peers. You have to attract them from an element outside of learning, so their peers will want to come and will be supportive. If their peers have something in their house involving food or artsy events, people are more motivated to come. In kiruv circles, they offer a lot more classes regarding light subjects where they also have food, activities, or crafts, or a lot of other ways of attracting people.
How do you motivate your daughters to learn?
AS: Well it’s interesting. I feel that each child needs to find their own path and they have to relate and have their personal relationship to G-d with their own individual connection. I try to set an example for them but really the thing is they’re so different from me and that’s great. I’ve got six kids and they’re each different, which is wonderful. They each have their unique and private relationship with G-d. They have to find a way to continue to learn. They have to be motivated from within, from their own inner striving to create a closer relationship with G-d.
NS: I have a very hard time with that. When my daughter sees how passionate I am in Torah learning and that I’m really well versed and I’m strong with my convictions, she becomes inspired to engage with Torah in more than a superficial level. She’s inspired to motivate the women around her to be connected.
Each child needs to create her own areas of interest and knowledge because otherwise, when she gets older, she will never have appreciated learning. There are also different levels of maturity. The more academic or more spiritually inclined students get further in learning in terms of self-motivation. Bottom line, it can’t be forced on them because pressure to learn will cause it to backlash.
NF: My daughters like to learn. I think that is because they grow up in a home where learning is an essential part of life. We have a learning environment in the home. I try to spend time with them learning together. Actually I have a lot of pleasure in learning with my kids so I think they feel how much I enjoy learning with them. I don’t tell them directly you should learn—that would be a big mistake—but the environment, positive attitude, and their parents’ joy of learning has to affect them in some way. I think children naturally love to learn. It’s just that schools sometimes destroy that if they have a rigid structure.
What creates the best learning environment?
NF: Well the children see that their father and mother spend a lot of their time in front of a book (chuckle). They see that their parents enjoy learning. During family meals the discussion often revolves around learning. At the dinner table, my husband, my children, and I discuss ideas that we learn. I bring up an idea that I find fascinating. We all ask a questions and the children bring up topics they are learning as well. Basically, the children see and experience that learning is valuable. They don’t need to be told.
How can learning be made more stimulating for those women who are not academically inclined?
Mrs. Shulamith May (“SM”): Through alternative means that appeal to people such as monthly Rosh Chodesh text messages. It is a subtle reminder that it is Rosh Chodesh so they can daven properly, dress and eat in a special way, learn something special about that month’s power and receive a bracha (blessing).
AS: One thing I found in teaching for over 20 years is that there’s teaching and there’s learning how to teach. These are two separate things and both are important. For instance, I’ve learned that using power points was powerful in making the topic personal and exciting. Anything visual, such as a handout, will help, too. The other thing is there has to be an emotional component so that it’s not just academic. In other words, you frame it as ‘this is what we are learning but how does it affect our personal life?’
NF: I think that every person has to find what is inspiring to them. Everyone has to find their love within learning. Some love Halacha, others love learning chumash, some find this author to be interesting, that lecturer to be inspiring; it’s very personal. You don’t need to be very academic in order to learn.
Women are juggling a lot of priorities on a day to day basis. How do we reframe learning as one of those priorities?
NF: Personally, learning is a first priority. As soon as I can, I begin each day with learning. I get up in the morning, send my kids to school, I daven and then I learn. When I do that I feel that my day is more successful. For some people this is not possible due to the age of the children, or if the mother has a job. When that was not possible for me, I made sure there was learning immediately as soon as it was possible. In other words, learning is a priority so I always put it at the top of the to-do list.
AS: It’s very hard isn’t it? We have so many things drawing us. It’s the sweetness of learning. When you taste the sweetness that’s what has to be what draws you. You’re right; you have many things competing for your attention and time. One method is setting up a chevruta (learning partner) because she’s going to be there. That helps me make sure the learning will happen. You’ve got another person there that you have to deal with, so you can’t make excuses. You have to dig out the beauty from learning and the excitement and the delight will follow. That’s a motivating factor.
SM: Women today are exceedingly busy; running a home, raising children and often being involved outside the home with a career or Chesed organizations. Finding time for formal classes is often not practical. I often listen to Torah CDs in my car to and from work. It is something that I look forward to as I enter my car. It is my spiritual injection for the day. I also make sure to do some bite size learning before I go to sleep – whether it is the daily dose of the Chofetz Chaim’s Laws of Speech or a Jewish magazine article on some contemporary issue. These are suggestions for even the busiest women.
How do you make time for learning?
NF: It’s simply a priority. I create a time in my day that’s my learning time. Exceptions to that are, of course, taking care of the children–which comes first—or making sure the home is decent. But once the children are in school and you have cleared the kitchen table from breakfast, it’s time for learning.
SM: As one gets older and has less concentrated responsibilities at home, i.e., no daily homework and lunches to prepare, it would certainly be worthwhile to exercise one’s brain in a weekly type of Torah class. Just as women find time for their Yoga classes several evenings a week, they can certainly find time to build up their spiritual muscles as well.
What is lost if a woman does not learn or has no desire to learn?
NS: It’s preconceived that learning is for men. Talmud Torah is indeed a mitzvah for men and it’s not a requirement for women. And yet the Lubavitcher Rebbe had a chiddush (new insight) on that—if you want women to raise children, the woman needs to be inspired in order to teach correctly. And I think many rabbis do realize that women need to be educated like men if they are to raise the next generation because oftentimes how you saw your grandmother do things is vague. When you have a proper base in Torah then it’s a lot easier to keep the Torah and mitzvot.
NF: Living without learning is like living in a house without windows. Without learning there is no light, no renewal, no perspective, and no inspiration. For some people who are passionate, learning could be two hours a day; for some people, it could be a shiur a week. But I think people should consider learning as a necessity, not a luxury. Even mothers who are very busy will find time to eat, shower, and brush their teeth, so some minimal amount of learning could be allocated.
AS: This is an interesting question because there are those who believe that women shouldn’t really learn. They would say you’re not losing anything by leaving Torah study to the men. Here we have in Rambam’s Sefer Hamitzvot, that the first two mitzvot are loving HASHEM and fearing HASHEM and for a woman we don’t have the mitzvah to learn, but learning Torah will certainly help you fulfill the first two mitzvot. You can love G-d without learning Torah but it definitely helps to make the mitzvot happen. Not to mention, everyone needs to learn Halacha (Jewish law). Everyone needs to know Halacha.