CAPE TOWN (Dec. 3)
It all started when my daughter Daniella mailed me the sample curriculum for Aish HaTorah’s Gem program on Judaism for women over 30. Daniella, a ba’alat teshuvah, or secular Jew who became religiously observant, was several years into her spiritual return. Her journey had been given a considerable boost by a 12-month stint at the outreach organization’s Eyaht women’s seminary in Jerusalem two years ago. I think she was hoping that her secular mother would be inspired to follow suit.
My initial doubts were summarily brushed aside.
“Ma, just forget about everything and go,” she said. “Studying Torah in Jerusalem is a special privilege and an opportunity to be grabbed with both hands.”
I flew to Israel, excited but also preoccupied with questions: Would I find the course beneficial? How would I cope with being a student again after so many years? What would the other participants be like?
Of the group of seven, five were mothers of ba’alei teshuvah who had been motivated to attend in part by their desire to understand what made their children tick.
Janet Rothman of San Francisco said at the end of the program that she had found it to be “stunning” but would never have come had it not been for her son’s involvement.
“You have stereotypes of what the Orthodox world is like, but when your own child is part of it and you see that they’re only better because of it, it makes you more open,” she explained.
Third-time attendee Theda Zuckerman, who hails from Manhattan’s Upper West Side and has been religiously observant for nearly 25 years, described Gem as “a spiritual shot in the arm.”
The daily agenda was filled with lectures ranging from the philosophical to the practical, interspersed with field trips including visits to Hebron’s Ma’arat HaMachpela — the biblical burial site of the patriarchs and matriarchs — Masada, the Dead Sea and the Western Wall tunnels in Jerusalem. We even found ourselves dancing at a Chasidic wedding.
One highlight was a visit to the home of Rebbetzin Fruma Altusky, 76, not only because of the quality of her lecture and delicious homemade cheesecake. Afterward she took us upstairs to receive a blessing from her father, Rabbi Pincus Scheinberg, 96, a Torah great of our generation. It was heartwarming to see this great-grandmother revert to little-girl mode in his presence.
Topics examined in class included lashon hara, or prohibited speech; “I’m a good person — why be religious?”; “History of current events in Israel”; “The Jewish view of sexuality”; and “Bringing the Torah text to life.”
For me, the central question was tackled in a lecture by Rabbi Asher Resnick: “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
The rabbi’s 14-year-old daughter had died of leukemia four years ago, after the disease had been in remission for 10 years and the girl had undergone four bone-marrow transplants.
“The Torah has a lot to say on the topic, and we need to see what lessons we can learn from even the most difficult things that happen around us,” he said.
“The traditional Torah view is that the world is constantly supervised by an all-caring, all-powerful Creator. Even the most difficult and challenging suffering is exclusively for our benefit and growth,” he said. “That may seem uncomfortable, but it is the only perspective that is meaningful and comforting. With meaning, you can deal with anything. Without meaning, the most minor, trivial issue can destroy you.”
Witnessing Resnick’s faith under the most trying circumstances distilled for me the essence of the 12-day program.
We met with residents of Jerusalem’s Old City in their homes and heard their experiences of living within the city’s ancient walls. We were also invited to Shabbat meals there.
The group was struck by the generosity of these people and their willingness to host a bunch of strangers.
“I don’t know what I’ve done to merit living here,” said one of the hosts, Elisheva Borenson, “especially when you think that the Vilna Gaon and Moshe Rabbeinu didn’t. I feel it is my duty to share it with others.”
I didn’t return home in a wig, as some friends and family had suggested prior to my departure. The changes I underwent were less visible, the result of being exposed to new concepts and exploring questions of faith that periodically had troubled me.
The doors of Jewish learning were opened to me just a bit and in such a way that I’m inspired to seek out more treasures behind them.
When we were asked at the beginning what we wished to gain by attending the program, I told the group that I was hoping it would serve as a launching pad for further studies into our heritage. I can now say with a fair measure of confidence that it will.
(For more information, contact director Necha Golda Dubinsky at email@example.com or see the Aish HaTorah Web site at www.aish.com.)