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24 Adar I 5760 - March 1, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Lev L'Achim's Midrasha Gives Jewish Identity to Young Israeli Women

By Mordechai Friedman

Jews from across the religious spectrum are now beginning to catch on to something that Orthodox Jewry has known for years: that assimilation and intermarriage are the number-one threats to the survival of the Jewish people in the 21st century.

Many things have been tried, but it's been proven time and time again that the only way to bring Jews back to Judaism is by teaching them Torah.

Now P'eylim / Lev L'Achim is proving it yet again with a new program designed to help young, nonreligious women throughout Eretz Yisroel return to their roots. Under the Midrashot program, these women meet at least once a week in their communities to learn Torah and hashkofo and, in effect, to regain their Jewish identities.

According to Shoshana Pachter, director of the Midrashot program, Lev L'Achim chose to focus on this segment of the population because many young Israeli women feel a tremendous emptiness in their lives and want something more.

"There is this big thirst in Eretz Yisroel right now, a spiritual thirst," says Mrs. Pachter. "There are so many young women who want meaning and substance in their lives, and they need to have somewhere to turn to find it."

A Rapidly Growing Program

Lev L'Achim launched the Midrashot program in 1998 by setting up a pilot midrasha in Ramle, a city notorious for its violence and drug abuse, not to mention its high rate of intermarriage between Jews and Arabs. The goal of the project was twofold: First, to introduce young women in Ramle to Torah values to prevent them from intermarrying, and second, to determine whether similar programs could be set up nationwide.

Initially, a small, diverse group of young women aged 17 to 23 joined the midrasha program in Ramle. They met biweekly in an informal setting where they tackled such topics as the uniqueness of being Jewish and the Torah's outlook on relationships and marriage.

Of the 25 original participants in the program, a large number continued their religious education and have become observant. And even those who have yet to make that leap say they have adopted a more discriminative attitude when it comes to marriage.

Because of the success of its pilot program, Lev L'Achim began opening midrashot in a wide variety of communities throughout the country, including Ofakim, Haifa, Netanya, Petach Tikva and Tel Aviv.

In fact, in the last year alone, the organization has opened 20 midrashot, a number well above its original expectations.

"Even when I say the number now," says Mrs. Pachter, "I still don't believe it. We faced a lot of obstacles, but we had a tremendous amount of siyata deShmaya."

Mrs. Pachter, who also runs the midrasha in Ra'anana, adds that although the focus in the pilot program was to prevent intermarriage, now the program also works to prepare these women for their roles as mothers of the next generation of Am Yisroel.

"The idea is not just to give them a Jewish identity," she says, "but also to teach them how to build Jewish homes."

A Feeling Of Togetherness

It's Sunday night at the midrasha in Or Yehuda. About 20 young women, ages 16 to 30, are sipping coffee as they mull over the lecture they just heard about getting married. Empty cake plates litter their desks.

Vicky Hakohen, the supervisor of the midrasha, is fielding a question from one young woman about the idea of a soulmate being destined from birth. How can a person choose her own mate, she asks, if Hashem already chose one for her?

The discussion continues for a while, and then the women head slowly for the door, stopping to rinse out their mugs before they leave.

Coffee and cake are important parts of the biweekly lectures at the Or Yehuda midrasha. One of the keys to the midrasha's success is its relaxed, informal atmosphere. The women meet in the evenings after work or school, and get-togethers and special events are also held on Shabbos and Rosh Chodesh.

According to Mrs. Hakohen, the staff works very hard to create a feeling of warmth and companionship among the women.

"Many of the women come," she says, "because of the personal connection, the warmth. It's something they don't find in the secular world."

Just how important is this togetherness?

A few months ago Yehudit began attending classes at the Ra'anana midrasha after she and her husband sensed an emptiness in their lives that no amount of material wealth could fill.

She says the warmth and support she received from the staff and other women at the midrasha was an important part of her trip back to Yiddishkeit.

"When you become observant," she says, "it's like going from one world to another, and it's very important to have friends. I didn't have any religious friends, and they gave me the warmth, support and friendliness I needed."

Local Learning

A unique aspect of the Midrashot program is its ability to bring the classes of a major outreach organization to groups of women in small communities throughout the country who would otherwise not have access to them.

And because the midrashot are run by people who live in or near those communities, they tailor the classes and subjects of discussion to the needs of the local population.

While in Ramle the emphasis was on preventing intermarriage between Jews and Arabs, in other communities it's on preventing intermarriage between Jews and non-Jewish Russian immigrants. These non-Jews are entering Eretz Yisroel in increasingly high numbers, and many Jewish women are unaware that the Russians in their neighborhood are not Jewish, or they do not think on their own to inquire about their status.

In areas where intermarriage is less of a problem, such as in Netanya where many of the women are from traditional homes, classes instead focus on the importance of increasing mitzva observance. Many of the women who attend the Netanya midrasha, are, for example, now more careful when it comes to tznius, and others have stopped watching television.

And in Rechovot, though the majority of women have no knowledge of Yiddishkeit, classes are on a high intellectual level because many of the locals are college graduates and professionals.

"We start with the basics," says Rabbi Eliezer Schwob, supervisor of the Rechovot Midrasha, "but our midrasha is geared to academics, and we learn everything from Chumash with Rashi to Sefer Hamitzvos, machshava, Mishlei and hilchos Shabbos."

Overcoming Obstacles

Although Lev L'Achim has already opened 20 midrashot, getting the women to attend the classes on a regular basis isn't always easy.

When each midrasha opened its doors, it held a major event to mark the opening, with renowned speakers, such as Rabbi Uri Zohar, headlining the evening. This is what brings many women to the midrashot. Others hear about them through word of mouth or learn about them through Lev L'Achim advertisements.

But once the women start attending classes, problems often arise.

Yaffa Sror, supervisor of the Ramat Gan midrasha, explains, "Sometimes the parents make it very hard," she says. "They don't want their daughters to become religious. But when they start coming home and honoring their parents and speaking and acting differently, the parents often come around."

There is also, of course, peer pressure to contend with, but many of the women are able to ignore this pressure once they see the true side of Yiddishkeit the midrashot represent.

Leora was one of these women. She left home at age 17 looking for fulfillment in life. She spent two years "trying everything," but she came up empty-handed. Then a friend convinced her to try an outreach seminar, and she eventually began attending classes at the midrasha in Kfar Saba. She now attends classes once a week and hopes to soon begin learning on daily basis.

"I now know that the Torah is true," she says. "It gives me something nothing else in my life has ever given me. And believe me, I've tried it all."

Phone Calls That Pay Off

One of the ways the staff at the midrashot makes sure the women attend the classes is by calling them on a weekly basis.

Mrs. Pachter recalls how, in the beginning, the staff members who made those phone calls often found their job difficult, especially when family members would react negatively to them or when the women themselves didn't show despite repeated calls.

"What I did," she says, "is remind them of the big responsibility they have. What about the woman who keeps coming only because of that phone call? If we don't call her, she won't come."

She also recalled how a certain staff member called one local woman week after week for an entire year, yet the woman never came to the midrasha.

Then one day the woman walked into the midrasha and demanded to speak to the woman who called her each week.

"You want to know who has been nudging you?" a staff member asked her.

"No," she replied. "I want to see who it is who cares so much and calls me week after week and never gives up."

Emergency Care

While Mrs. Pachter says that at times her job can be rewarding, she's involved in the program not because of its rewards, but because of the important role she believes it will play in the continuity of Klal Yisroel.

With assimilation and intermarriage rising to new levels everywhere, Mrs. Pachter considers the organization's work to be nothing less than hatzolas nefoshos.

"What we're doing," she says, "is providing emergency care. But it's not for bodies; it's for souls."

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