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."