Torah Learning At Any Stage
This essay is brought to The Layers Project Magazine through a partnership with Matan- The Sadie Rennert Women’s Institute for Torah Studies in honor of their 30th-anniversary dinner this Chol Hamoaid Sukkot in Jerusalem.
When we decided to move to Jerusalem, one of the selling points was the access to the multitude of Torah institutions that my family and I could enroll in. A few short months after we landed, I was thrilled to join Matan’s open-enrollment Tanach classes. I chose to take Yishayahu, with one of my favorite teachers from my year in seminary (15 years ago), Dr. Yael Ziegler. Yael has been at Matan for nearly 30 years; starting as a student in the second year of Matan’s founding and then going on to teach for the past 27 years in their institution.
In my schedule, I knew that I had that hour and fifteen minutes every Wednesday morning that I could dedicate to studying Torah in a formal setting. It would be the first time, since I graduated from college, that I was back learning Torah in school.
The particular class I chose dealt with the section in Yishayahu that focuses on “Shivat Tzion,” the resettling of the land of Israel following the exile to Bavel. The messages and timelines of Yishayahu are particularly relevant today; a return from an exile, ancient and new. As I myself had just made aliyah, each passage felt as if it was speaking directly to me. Through the ups and downs of my absorption process, I knew that every Wednesday I would get the chizzuk I needed to continue to persevere and fill me with inspiration for this new life. As Yael said, “This is a class of olim. This section of the Torah is a wonderful example of how the Tanach speaks directly to our lives and modern times.”
As I sat in the auditorium every week, filled to the brim with women eager to learn, I discovered something thrilling. This was the first time that I had ever been enrolled in a formal Torah education program where I could not age out. Every program I had ever participated in, I eventually completed the program and graduated. But the open enrollment program at Matan is non-matriculated. I could return to their classrooms every year for the rest of my life, God willing.
Yael shared with me, “One of the things that is particularly powerful about Matan, is that we have many women who, after retirement, at a mature stage of their learning lives, choose to spend their time dedicating themselves to serious Torah learning. Many of these women may not ever have had a formal Torah education in their youth, but all of them come and bring their tremendous amount of life experience to the classroom. Their varied educations and professions add so much to the classes. They all have something to contribute; sharing comments, ideas, articles, and books. The viewpoints of an economist, psychologist, tour guide, English professor, and many mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers, bring a rich and varied approach to our subject. I have a classroom full of women who bring their eagerness to learn Torah combined with their collective life experiences.”
My particular class has the feeling of a group that has been together for many years. Yael remarked, “Some of the students in my class have been learning with me for 25 years. In many ways, I feel like these students have been through life with me. They met me as a young single person, and have been with me through my engagement, marriage, pregnancies, births, bar mitzvahs and various life events. The class has a family atmosphere; at the beginning of each class we like to share good news, and sometimes offer prayers or updates for illness or life’s challenges. Matan has created a warm environment, a home where we learn Torah together weekly for many years.”
Sometimes Yael will bring up a passuk or point from the Tanach, and there will be women in the room who will recall a correlating passage or message from another section that they had learned together, years ago. Often, it feels that our class is a walking Bible Concordance, women with a vast and deep knowledge of Tanach. I can’t tell you how thrilling it is to have female role models of all ages, who are so deeply committed to learning. Because of this experience, please God, I have a glimpse into a future that is possible for me, that I had never seen before.
Yael recently told me this story about the power of this new access for women to scholarship. “When we completed Neviim Rishonim, it took us around ten years. Many of the women had been there for the entire course of learning. At the very end of learning Melachim, I decided we should do a siyum. We finished a very significant portion of Tanach, in great depth. I offered to have the siyum during class, but the women voted that they did not want to miss a class, ‘We don’t come here to eat cake, we come here to learn.’ I found that very moving. So we came an hour early (at 8:00 am!) and had our siyum. One woman approached me and said, ‘I have made so many siyumim in my life. For my father, brothers, husband, sons, and even grandsons. This is the first time that I have made a siyum for myself.’
That to me is Matan. A place where not only women who have high levels of formal Torah education, can reach even higher. But also a place where higher Torah education is opened to invite women of all ages to dedicate themselves, l’shma, to Torah learning.”
Matan makes it possible for women of any stage to learn Torah. In my class, there are college-age students, women bringing their babies, professionals, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers; all learning together. We are on a journey; seeking inspiration and guidance for living a Jewish life at any stage. It is a privilege to have finished my first year with this special cohort, and I am eager for classes to resume in a few weeks. This time, we will be learning with Dr. Ziegler, Bereshit: “Creation, cosmic order, the purpose of humans, the nature of a failed society, and the relationships between God and humans, man and woman, and more.”
I can’t wait to sign up and start all over again.
Mazal tov to Dr. Yael Ziegler on being honored at Matan’s 30th-anniversary dinner, this Chol Hamoaid Sukkot, in Jerusalem.
Shira Lankin Sheps grew up in New Jersey and went to Stern College for women. After graduating from Hunter College School of Social Work with her MSW in clinical social work, she worked in the clinical field, in marketing and photojournalism.
She decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community.
She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience.
Shira made aliyah with her family two years ago to Jerusalem.
Headshot taken by Tzipora Lifchitz.