Seeing the Big Picture

Seeing the Big Picture

We are indeed living in historic times, and Rabbi Riskin has helped shape that history. ​

by Rabbanit Naomi Berman

Rabbanit Nomi Berman teaching in the ML beit midrash
Rabbanit Naomi Berman teaching in the Midreshet Lindenbaum beit midrash

A few years ago, as head of the beit midrash of Midreshet Lindenbaum, I had called Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Founder and, at the time, Chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone, to discuss some halakhic questions regarding the upcoming holidays that we would be celebrating in our Midrasha.​ Before even delving into the intricacies of the halakha and answering my questions, he first paused and began to recite the Shehecheyanu blessing. “How amazing it is that we have the zchut, the privilege to live in a time and place where 250 women can learn together in the world’s largest beit midrash and that we have the luxury of having to consider novel halakhic issues!,” he said.​ Needless to say, I received the answers to my questions, but what really impacted upon me was this “big picture” perspective, because Rabbi Riskin is a big picture person.​

We are indeed living in historic times, and Rabbi Riskin has helped shape that history. ​

On a personal note, I owe a tremendous debt of hakarat hatov to Rabbi Riskin, who has played a role in my own personal journey. ​

Two seminal events in my life, both when I was sixteen:

I was learning Jewish History with a young woman who was in many ways a role model for me.​ When teaching the Rabbinic period, she handed out a passage of gemara and told us nervously that she had practiced reading the Aramaic text with her husband the previous night.​ ​ It suddenly occurred to me that, while I often heard quotes from the gemara, I had never actually learned it inside.​ It would take a few more years before I would learn the relevant passages in Kiddushin and Sotah, as well as the interpretations that permit and even encourage the study of Talmud by women.​ Back then I was merely puzzled. When I got home that night, I pulled the gemara off my father’s bookshelf for the first time. ​ And that is when I realized that I was going to need some guidance…

A few months later, I visited Israel with my mother. ​ During that trip, I entered a beit midrash for the first time. ​ The vibrancy of the environment quite literally took my breath away. ​ Where could I find the feminine version?

I was seeking gemara learning and a beit midrash.​ Fortunately, Rabbi Riskin had pioneered both, and a few years later I found my way to a previous iteration of the Midreshet Lindenbaum beit midrash.​ It was, at the time, the only beit midrash for women in the world, in an unassuming apartment building on Rehov Herzog in Jerusalem.​ The building served as both dormitory and learning center.​ The beit midrash was the living room of one of the apartments, and the kitchen and bedrooms served as classrooms.​ The summer before I joined the midrasha, it became apparent that the beit midrash was inadequately sized for the growing population of young women seeking high level Torah study, so the walls were broken down to expand the beit midrash and the classrooms moved to an adjacent apartment.​

A few years ago, I heard a cynical comment about the women learning in the kitchen in those days.​ In retrospect, I concur that there was a symbolism in the status of our beit midrash, but I disagree about the nature of the metaphor.​ Midreshet Lindenbaum was breaking down walls, removing barriers.​ To borrow a concept from the Laws of Shabbat, I would say that we were breaking, but only in order to build.​ Rav Riskin has always been a builder.​

And indeed, as the years progressed, Midreshet Lindenbaum continued to expand and add more programs, stage after stage, each stage representing another landmark in an educational worldview that believes in true integration of women into the Torah world through the vehicle of Talmud Torah at the highest levels.​ Hadas, the program that combines intensive Torah study with full service in the IDF; Yad La’Isha: the Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline for agunot; the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL) – each another brick in Rabbi Riskin’s magnificent building.​

I met my husband when he was studying for semikha from Rabbi Riskin at OTS’s Straus Seminary, and through him I was exposed to another element of Rabbi Riskin’s vision, which was particularly highlighted in the yeshiva. In the context of the yeshiva’s semikha program, Rabbi Riskin gave a weekly Rabbinics class in which he shared from his dozens of years of experience and wisdom in communal leadership. ​ The deep spirit of communal responsibility and shlichut, which would subsequently prompt the establishment of Ohr Torah Stone’s Straus-Amiel Training Program for Rabbinical Emissaries, already permeated the yeshiva. ​ ​ ​

As alumni of OTS institutions, it was only natural that the two of us would embark on shlichut, and particularly in a capacity which emphasized partnership between male and female leadership.​ Likewise, it was only natural that we would return home afterwards to raise our family in Efrat, the magnificent city in the Judean mountains which reflects another piece of Rabbi Riskin’s vision, and back to Midreshet Lindenbaum, where I am still privileged to learn and to teach.​

I admit that I sometimes get mired in the details, and it is then that I try to take a step back, to admire the big picture, and to hear Rav Riskin’s voice reciting Shehecheyanu, V’Kihemanu, V’Higianu Lazman Hazeh. How grateful we are to be living at this point in time in a community, and learning and teaching in an institution where we have so many new details to hammer out.

Rabbanit Naomi Berman serves as the Rosh Beit Midrash of Midreshet Lindenbaum, part of the Ohr Torah Stone network. These reflections come in the wake of a new Sefer Torah being dedicated at the seminary, in honor of OTS founder and Rosh HaYeshiva, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.

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