May 23, 2021
Celebrating Jewish women’s leadership
By Barbara Sofer
What, me worry? That was the tagline of Alfred E. Neuman, the mascot and cover boy of Mad magazine, created – who is surprised? – by a Jewish cartoonist named Harvey Kurtzman.
What, me worry about the future of the Jewish people?
I know the latest Pew Research Center report on the state of Jewish life in America is being read as good news, but it doesn’t assuage my concern. It says, for instance, that “many Jewish Americans participate, at least occasionally, both in some traditional religious practices – like going to a synagogue or fasting on Yom Kippur – and in some Jewish cultural activities, like making potato latkes, watching Israeli movies or reading Jewish news online. Among young Jewish adults, however, two sharply divergent expressions of Jewishness appear to be gaining ground – one involving religion deeply enmeshed in every aspect of life, and the other involving little or no religion at all.”
While 72% sometime enjoy challah and hamantashen, only 17% keep kosher homes. The division between those deeply involved in Jewish life and those who “have no religion at all” is less than salutary. When “asked to imagine a time in the future when they have grandchildren of their own (if they do not currently have any), roughly six in 10 US Jews say it would be very important or somewhat important for their grandchildren to be Jewish.” Still among Jewish respondents who married in the past decade, six in 10 say they have a non-Jewish spouse, and according to the report 82% of their children will also intermarry.
Nonetheless, I’m worrying less about Jewish continuity and here’s why.
On the Sunday before the Hamas rockets started falling in Jerusalem, on the cusp of Jerusalem Day, I happily accepted an invitation to an outdoor celebration at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood.
Like so many other events, this one was postponed from the year before when public gatherings were banned because of the coronavirus. It was scheduled to honor the 80th birthday of Ohr Torah founder and Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. A Torah scroll would be dedicated to be used with love in this all women’s house of study. The celebration was at the school’s main campus, although students from Karmiel and Lod – relatively new branches to bring women’s Torah study to the periphery – would be there, too.
Rabbi Riskin is turning 81 this month. Like a smart leader should, he has passed on his role as president and rosh yeshiva of the Ohr Torah Stone network (to Rabbi Kenneth Brander). He is still teaching and examining students and adjudicating tough questions. When I see the rabbi and his wife, Victoria Pollins Riskin, sit down at the table to pen the final letters of the Torah scroll, I get a lump in my throat. They have spent their lives in service to the Jewish people and look at all they have accomplished.
Steven Riskin wasn’t born into an observant home, but already as a teen he was determined to make an impact in the Jewish world. He turned down Harvard for Yeshiva University, and became a leading figure in the revival of modern Orthodox Jewry in the United States. He made Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan a model of worship, education and outreach.
Already a celebrity rabbi in the US, and hailed in the media (Time magazine referred to him as “Stevie Wonder”), he left his American pulpit and followed his conscience and heart to Israel. Here was a beardless rabbi in a 1983 Israel skeptical of American immigrants. Even though he had been ordained by Rabbi Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik, examiners were surprised at how fluidly the American answered all the tough questions on the Israeli rabbinical qualifying tests.
He thought his New York congregation would follow him to the scrappy new town of Efrat, but they didn’t. Nonetheless, he became the city rabbi and founded the Ohr Torah Stone network, the first truly enlightened religious high schools, and later joined with the prestigious institutions of Rabbi Chaim Brovender for advanced men and women’s Torah study.
Together with late lay leader Belda Lindenbaum, Rabbi Riskin expanded study and empowerment in the eponymous advanced women’s Torah center. In recent weeks, the school has made headlines because Shira Marili Mirvis, graduate of the five-year program parallel to rabbinical studies, is leading an Orthodox synagogue in Efrat.
I look around for Shira. She isn’t there, but her mother-in-law is. So is pioneering Orthodox feminist Blu Greenberg, and other grandmothers like me who have witnessed the development of women’s learning. We’re universally teary.
The stars of the evening are the young women, mostly 19-year-olds, all students from Israel and the Diaspora. When the fabulous and funky all-women’s Ahoty Band hits the drums and keyboard, 200 young women join hands, dance in circles, leaping off the floor, hoisting the babies of older students, twirling in joy around the Torah scroll. The long-sleeved vocalist belts out: Shivti beveit hashem kol yemey chayay. “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.”
These young women have chosen to spend a year or years in a study hall decoding the tall tomes of Jewish sources. With its well-earned intellectual reputation, Midreshet Lindenbaum has drawn some of the brainiest Jewish women. They have the skills to address modern questions and challenges. Equally important, these young women are trained in leadership skills to impact their Jewish and general communities wherever they live.
Many will join the IDF or do national service. Others will matriculate at elite universities like Harvard and Penn and Cambridge and the University of Melbourne. As they dance, you can’t tell who are the Sabras. The announcements are only in Hebrew because everyone is fluent.
I have an imaginary flash-forward of all these women bringing up families where Jewish mothers provide not only the flavor and flare of Judaism, but also the deep knowledge and passion for knowledge that was withheld from generations of women in the past.
I see them leading congregations and schools and public discussions that require contemporary ethical insight. Many will doubtless move to Israel because not only minds but also their hearts have been engaged in Jerusalem. Others will become invaluable resources for Diaspora communities and stalwart supporters of Israel.
The band changes tunes. Ki m’tzion tetze torah, udvar hashem mirushalyim. “From Zion will come forth Torah…”
Indeed. Why worry?