In an laden interview granted recently, internationally known teacher, lecturer, and activist Mrs. Rivkah Slonim spoke about her childhood, her influences in life, and her opinions on what women should learn.
A few weeks ago, director of Batsheva Learning Center, Mrs. Hadassah Shemtov, interviewed Mrs. Rivky Slonim about her perspective on advancing Torah learning for women. Mrs. Slonim speaks about the influences in her life that empowered to take her learning seriously, why she thinks it’s important for women as well and what needs to shift in our community in order to realize the Rebbe’s vision for the women of our generation. Top of Mrs. Slonim’s list is encouraging Chabad girls’ elementary and high schools to incorporate Mishna and Gemara into their school curriculum.
Read the write-up of the interview below or listen to the full (unedited) recording here .
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I am a second generation Brooklynite. I grew up on Lefferts Ave, which at the time was the west bank of Crown Heights. I went to Beis Rivka and had an idyllic childhood. I loved school, my teachers, my friends, my principals. I was surrounded by very strong role models. When my mother and father got married, my maternal grandparents gave them a house to live in that was upstairs from where my grandparents lived, so I grew up in the same house as my grandparents. That had a very profound influence on me in many ways. I went through Beis Rivka elementary school, high school and seminary. Very few people left to go to seminary in those days and I was no exception. I got married and my husband learned in Kollel for one year while I taught in Beis Rivka, the eighth grade limudei kodesh and in the afternoon I taught English and Social studies in the Viner high school in Williamsburg.
The next year I was fortunate enough to teach the very first cohort of what would become Machon Chana. Up until that time they had evening classes, but that year they opened a full fledged yeshiva. I taught Likutei Sichos to the girls and I think that’s when I knew that teaching adults was what my first love was. It was a very special experience because the year before I taught eighth grade and I felt like I was walking into a warzone every single day. I meet the girls I taught today, and they are nostalgic about those days, but I can tell you what it felt like to be on the other side of the desk. It was difficult. So teaching adults who did not require any discipline and were just there to learn was such a privilege. It was a real gift.
When did you get into more serious Torah learning and where did your passion for advancing women’s Torah learning begin?
It’s really hard for me to trace a trajectory with real precision but if I had to think about it more critically, part of it has to be genetic, since all of my siblings love to learn and love to teach. My father was a teacher for most of his life and my mother was a teacher for most of her life. You can say that it’s kind of in our DNA. As for the nurture part of it – I don’t remember ever seeing my father without a sefer. I can’t ever remember waking up on a Shobbos morning and there wasn’t a Likutei Torah on the table. I grew up in the same home as my grandparents and for decades my grandfather taught two classes every single day – one was at 6 am sharp and one was at 8 pm sharp. He never, ever veered from that schedule. The only exception was for the weddings of his children and his grandchildren. Other than that, everything revolved around those classes. That was very much part of my childhood.
Also, my grandfather could not stand the sight of us doing anything domestic. We laughed because whenever he left the house, we had to surreptitiously cook something or tidy something up. We didn’t know who he expected would do this. I guess he figured the food would just find its way to the table miraculously, but he couldn’t stand seeing us do it. He would tell us “Go learn, go read something. Get out of the kitchen!” My sisters and I laugh because we do a lot of cooking, as women who run Chabad centers, but we are very true to our roots and we all hate doing it!
A very fond and formative memory that I have is that every night for a number of years when my grandfather came home from his office in Manhattan, I had to tell him a story I read that day. There was one occasion when I didn’t read a story that day and I thought I would repeat a story I told him a few years ago, but he caught me right when I started, telling me that this was not a new story and he was very disappointed. I think he had a very large part of nurturing my love of reading and learning.
I also was very fortunate in having another role model and that was my grandfather’s sister. Her full name was Leah Gurary-Karasik. She lived in Israel but when she came to visit you could tell that she was a very erudite woman and only when I was older did I learn that she and her first cousin, Sonia Gurary-Rosenblum, learned with Reb Yisrael Noach Belinsky, known as Reb Yisrael Noach Hagadol. The Rebbe Rashab told Reb Yisrael Noach which maamarim to teach these young women. My father did not grow up in a Lubavitcher home but when he came to Lubavitch, Reb Shlomo Chaim Kesselman became his mentor and my father told me that Reb Shlomo Chaim once recalled to him a scene he remembers from Kremetchug. One Shobbos, he saw these two young women, Leika and Sonia, davening b’avodah and afterwards making kiddush and having a small bite to eat. Then, they went into the Rebbe Rashab to ask questions they had in Chassidus. This was anomalous since the Rebbe Rashab did not usually give yechidus to women. This was a story I grew up with; that the Rebbe Rashab was involved in the maamarim that these girls should be taught by Reb Yisrael Noach.
I also grew up hearing that when my mother went to Israel to study, she went to Bais Yaakov of Yerushalayim for seminary. The Rebbe told Reb Zelig Slonim who would later become my uncle to teach my mother Chassidus every shabbos.
So it’s probably genetic and what in Yiddish we call the “arum”, the environment; the fact that it was never a question that this was what we should do.
You compiled two well-known books: Total Immersion and Bread and Fire. Can you tell us more about what inspired you to publish those books?
That really came out of meeting women wherever I went once I started to speak publicly. Wherever I went, I saw that there was a real thirst for honest voices on the subject of mikvah. Until that time, there were really just books of Halacha, but there were no writings that discussed how women felt doing this mitzvah; what was difficult, what was easy and so on. And the same thing happened with Bread and Fire. That too came about because I felt that women needed to hear from other women who were living fulfilled, meaningful, satisfying Jewish lives as women and it wasn’t necessarily happening in a synagogue. They say anthologies are a labor of love. It’s painstaking and it’s difficult but they were both subjects that I am very passionate about and if they make a difference in people’s lives, that makes me very happy.
And what kind of responses have you gotten from those books?
It’s been gratifying. I think people found it important. They felt like there were voices they could listen to and that their feelings were validated, when there was something they found in an essay that particularly resonated with them.
You seem to be somewhat unique in that you take a very large role in the educational part of your shlichus. Do you think it is important for other shluchos like yourself to also be heavily involved in teaching and why?
I very much hope that I am not unique. I know that at this point there are a lot of shluchos teaching heavily. I am a bit of a dinosaur of a campus shlucha. There are not many of us in our cohort who are Bubbies already! That gives us more time and more flexibility. Nonetheless, I think there are women of all ages who are campus shluchos who are teaching now and that’s how it should be for a million and one reasons. I’ve often said that not everyone will come daven with us, but everyone will come learn with us. It’s only when people learn with us, that they can gain entree into the richness of Yiddishkeit. They have to learn with us, they have to listen to our voices, they have to listen to our minds and our hearts. So if someone needs to hire a babysitter to prepare or to learn, that to me is the best possible usage of her time.
It really pains me when I see the hours and hours that go into the menu and discussion about desserts and centerpieces. It’s all really important, but it’s nothing compared to learning and I firmly believe that every single one of us has so much to give; so much more than we realize. Everybody can teach. Maybe not in front of a thousand people or a few hundred people, but everyone can teach. And maybe not everyone can teach everything, but everyone can teach something. I believe they can teach many, many things. I think it’s important for our students, both male and female, to see us as learned, as authoritative, as engaged on a cerebral level, and not just ‘the Rebbe’s caterers’, as it were.
I also think it’s one of the most powerful ways that a woman can be nourished and nurtured for herself. People always talk about self-care. I supposed it can feel really good to have your nails done, but there’s nothing as nourishing as learning something. And that allows you – in a very real way, not trying to be poetic here – to rise above the piles of laundry and the dishes and all the mechanics of life, and enter a different space. However long that may be, whether it’s a half hour or it’s 45 minutes, everybody deserves that! I think it’s hard to describe until you yourself become enthralled with text, become enthralled with learning, and then you can see what a treasure and what a gift that is in life.
Some people are naturally drawn to text-based learning and for others it’s either not as natural or they simply don’t have as much time to make it a priority in their lives. What resources do you recommend women use to make this a part of their lives and to what extent is it important to make it priority at stages of life when it might be more difficult?
My aunt, Chana Gurary, once went into yechidus with the Rebbe. At that point, she had a few children very close together and she was extremely overwhelmed. She cried to the Rebbe and said she could not manage. First, the Rebbe told her that only she can be the conduit to bring the neshamos into the world that she is meant to bring.Then, the Rebbe asked her how much help she had every day in the house. He then told her that whatever it was, she should double the amount of time she was getting help and that when the help leaves, she should not look in the corners. Meaning, she should not obsess over what they did correctly or incorrectly. But this is the part I really love. Then he told her to go teach in the high school, which she did for decades.
So you’re asking me if you should prioritize this? To me, it’s not a question. I believe yes.
I believe the Rebbe was telling my aunt this for her own sanity. She was bogged down and the Rebbe said ‘I know it sounds like I’m giving you another job but through this, you are going to find yourself and you’re going to find satisfaction that you can’t find any other way.’
I think that’s true for a lot of young mothers with children, so for them it might be especially important.
Were there challenges that you faced in progressing with your learning and are there challenges you think other women might face? How can we overcome those challenges?
Maybe the single most formidable obstacle is our own self construal; how we view ourselves. Are we supposed to be learning? Are we supposed to be purveyors of knowledge? Is this something that’s expected of us? I think there still isn’t this all-pervasive sense that this is our mission. That might be, at this point of time, the most formidable obstacle. There are so many resources, so many tools, so much support if a woman wants to learn. All around us women are learning. The Rebbe said publicly that he wants us to learn all aspects of Torah – anything that would nourish her yiras shamayim, ahavas hashem and yiras Hashem. I don’t understand why we don’t have Mishna and Gemara as a serious part of the curriculum in our girls’ schools. One of my daughters went to your mother’s school in Ithaca where mishnayos was taught to both the girls and the boys and I remember as a young mother of my daughter, I was taken aback. This was something I had never encountered. Your mother very matter-of-factly said “I don’t see why the girls shouldn’t be learning mishnayos.” But that’s still not as prevalent as it should be. I don’t know if you can call it prevalent at all. That saddens and disappoints me. I think that because of this, most women are coming to this on their own. If this becomes their passion, it’s more self-propelled than what the expectation is sociologically.
How do you think we shift that culture?
If you were to teach girls mishnayos in 4th, 5th and 6th grade and introduce Gemara at 7th and 8th grade level, it wouldn’t be this scary terrain. You wouldn’t have to get a new passport to enter this country. It is a new language and that can be very daunting and still is. I know for myself, I was pushed into learning mishnayos by an alum at an event. We had a Friday night dinner in Manhattan and she came over to me and asked if I would learn mishanyos with her in memory of someone who had passed on. I was about to say that I wouldn’t feel comfortable teaching mishnayos, since I had never learned it myself. Then, something clicked in my head. I said “Stehphanie, I’ll be very honest with you, I never learned mishnayos before but if you’re willing to take me as a chavrusa, we’ll start learning together.”
Boruch Hashem, there are so many resources today that made it possible for me to take baby steps in the direction of learning Gemara. But if this was really integrated into the curriculum of our elementary schools and our high schools, it would look completely different. Once you learn the terms and you get your footing, it enables you to progress in your learning, understand footnotes and references all over, whether you’re learning Shulchan Aruch, Rashi or the Rebbe’s sichos. It’s like connecting the dots.
Do you think the only thing we’re missing in how we’re educating our girls is incorporating Mishna and Gemara into the curriculum? Or do you think there are other things?
I think that would be a big change. That would really turn things. It’s not that we don’t have good teachers in our schools. And it’s not like they don’t have passion…
Going back to what you said about women’s self-perception – I think that’s the hardest thing to shift. I think women aren’t really convinced that this is what they are supposed to do. After all, what happened to being the akeres habayis?
But why are they mutually exclusive? The Rebbe says in that sicha that because a women spends time with her children, that’s why she should learn, that’s why she should be erudite and should be able to help her children learn and help her husband learn. And not just by giving him tea and coffee while he’s learning.
I want to mention a wonderful story that’s included in the book “Bread and Fire”. It’s a story about Rabbi Zlotnik. He taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary for many years. One time, he and his wife went in for yechidus and he mentioned that he taught a class on Shobbos afternoon in Talmud. He said this was something he really enjoyed since it was on a very high level. The Rebbe grew serious and asked him what his wife does during that time. He said that she and the other women prepare the shalosh seudos. The Rebbe said “She should be teaching mishnayos as well.” His wife, Karen Kirshenbaum, was very taken aback. After that, she started teaching a Mishna study group every Shobbos that went on for 25 years. Her daughter writes in the book, “I also started a Mishna study group 19 years ago that met every Shabbat afternoon. We recently finished the whole Mishna and made a siyum. There was a great feeling of accomplishment for all of the women who joined.” “ She also writes that she taught shishei sidre mishna to one of her sons before his Bar Mitzvah.
I reference this because if the Rebbe wanted this from Karen Kirshenbaum, why are we different? And because her daughter saw her mother doing this in her home, that’s what she did when she grew up as well.
Why do you think this trend hasn’t shifted in our community yet?
It’s a good question. I think change happens very slowly. I think we’re light years behind what the Rebbe wanted from us in so many ways. I think about things like prison reform, in light of what’s going on today. I think about how the Rebbe spoke about prison reform to a group of chassidim who were mostly first or second generation Americans, who didn’t necessarily know what he was talking about. I think we’re behind in so many ways. We’re straining to understand, we’re trying to get a glimpse into what the Rebbe wanted from us on so many fronts and this is just one of them.
I think people get entrenched in patterns. You have teachers teaching for many years, you have a certain curriculum. Change is slow. When I was a student, I don’t remember seeing any women teaching Tanya or teaching maamarim. Today, that has changed completely. So I don’t see why this can’t happen as well. But it takes time.
We recently ran a text-based course on hilchos niddah that explored the original sources in Mishna, Gemara, and rishonim, as well as some sources in Chassidus. One question we got a lot was that with any area of halacha and especially hilchos niddah, there’s already so much complexity. Giving women so much background into the original sources and showing them that a lot of what we do is only a derabanan or a minhag can detract from how seriously they take their observance.
I’m wondering if you can respond to that.
I hear that concern. Part of that concern has to do with the feminine modality being more aligned with practicality. While we enjoy learning deeply, perhaps what we learn is not as abstruse, not as abstract, not as removed. Perhaps there’s a fear that looking at the sources and seeing that there might be latitude to do things a different way than how we do them might open up a possibility for someone to take a more lax attitude.
I personally think that the kind of woman who is going to sit in this kind of class is doing so because of her love of learning and is not looking for a way out halachically. I think we have to trust people. We are all bichezkas kashrus and more. This may not be the thing to put into the public domain, but if there’s a self-selected group of people coming to learn this, I don’t share that concern, especially if you are learning niglah and chassidus together. The Rebbe always used to stress that the most important thing in learning Torah is to say the bracha of “nosein hatorah”, to remember whose Torah you are learning and to remember what the purpose of Torah is. If you’re doing it from that point of departure and that point of return, you mitigate any danger that the knowledge might be used in any way other than to further propel Torah and mitzvos.
Do you think that there are differences between what boys and girls should learn?
Perhaps. But to me that’s hardly the area of focus. It’s more important to provide the tools for girls to enter into this whole sea of Torah that is inaccessible because they weren’t introduced to the vocabulary, the system, the context.
What do you think is most important for a woman to make time to learn?
Maybe another way to ask this question is what speaks to the woman? What will make her heart soar? What will light up her brain? What will inflame her passion?
Because the Rebbe said a woman should learn any aspects of Torah that strengthen her ahavas Hashem and yiras Hashem.
How do you see this change happening practically?
I think changing the curriculum in our high schools and elementary schools would be a first step. I think that would create a sea change. And I think that should happen immediately. We’re just a few decades late here. In terms of how is this going to happen? Every woman in her own home, in her own life. That’s how it happens.