Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

2 Tammuz 5766 - June 28, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network











Home and Family

Arrival at Gateshead
by Esther Leah Avner

I was fifteen when I first heard of Gateshead Seminary. I had recently lost my father, and our family was preparing to move. During this time of confusion, grief and transition, a relative who resided in Gateshead wrote that we might be interested in a new institution, which had been founded in his town — a seminary for girls.

We were amazed. Never before had we heard of a Talmudic Yeshiva for girls, which was what we mistakenly thought it was. Even boys' Torah education was still "at sixes and sevens" in the post WWII flurry. The world was busy picking up the pieces and attempting to put itself together again. It seemed strangely apt that our family was striving to accomplish precisely the same thing after our own personal tragedy.

I was immediately entranced by the idea of a higher Torah education. Against all odds, my father had succeeded in implanting in me a love for Jewish learning while I was growing up in a town that could boast of few Shomer Shabbos families, and even fewer with hair-covering ideals.

Enthusiastically, I set about making inquiries. Would I be eligible for admittance to this new school of learning? Much to my disappointment, I discovered that not only was I too young but perhaps of greater import, there was no way we could afford the tuition.

The matter was soon forgotten, however, in the travails of moving and settling in my new surroundings. Three years were to pass before it would resurface, this time in the strangest of circumstances.

In the last year of high school, in common with all my peers, I applied for a university entrance scholarship. After a seemingly interminable waiting period, I was summoned for an interview at my college of choice, Kensington College for women, London University , and soon after that I was informed that I had been granted a scholarship.

For a week I walked on air, and together with my family made endless plans. Then suddenly I came down to earth with a bang. What was I going to use for money? True, the Stanfield Education Committee was offering a scholarship grant of a few pounds a week; which would just about cover tuition and dormitory fees. But I had to eat kosher — a dormitory was unthinkable for a frum girl.

What now? I discussed the situation with my non-Jewish class teacher. Could I explain my predicament to the education committee? Would they consider augmenting my grant for religious reasons? Hardly likely, but what could I lose by asking? After all, England was supposed to be a tolerant country. They were proud of that! True, it was rather unreasonable to expect that their religious tolerance would stretch to the point of their being willing to fork out more money. But I had to try. It was my only option.

I wrote them a letter explaining the situation and waited patiently for a reply. Two weeks passed without any news. I began to give up hope.

Then one day I did receive a letter, but not from them. It was addressed in a hand I did not recognize, on an expensive embossed envelope. I opened it eagerly. A certain member of the Jewish community named Councilor Singer was requesting me to come to his home to discuss something with him. I was completely mystified. Whatever could this important personage want to talk to me about?

The following Sunday morning, duly spruced and scrubbed, I presented myself at Councilor Singer's home. His wife showed me into a cheerful morning room and settled me in a comfortable armchair.

Presently a middle-aged man entered and greeted me pleasantly: Councilor Singer himself.

"Good morning," he commenced. "I know you are wondering what this is all about. Did you know that I am a member of Stanfield Education committee?"

"No," I replied, tensing. Suddenly all was clear. He was going to rebuke me for my chutzpa in writing that letter! I looked at the ground but Councilor Singer was continuing.

"You said some interesting things in that letter you wrote us. What's all this about not being able to eat in the college dining facilities? I am Jewish too, you know, and I am aware that observant Jews don't eat the same meat or something. But I have never before heard that you can't eat in the same place. Couldn't you just refrain from eating pork?"

"No," I explained. "It's not just pork. It's all meat, and it's not just meat but nearly every item of food has to be kosher. As a matter of fact it's not only food but even the dishes have to be kosher too."

"Well, well." Councilor Singer seemed quite overwhelmed. "But how do you know all that?"

"Because I am from a religious family," I replied simply, "and my parents taught me that this is what our Torah teaches." And for good measure I added, "That's what G-d wants us to do."

"I see," he said thoughtfully, and I think he really was convinced by my sincerity. I wondered if he would be able to convince the other members of the education committee. We talked a little more of my family, the loss of my father, our move from Belfast, and my mother's financial situation.

Finally Councilor Singer announced, "O.K. Business. Look, I think I am in a position to help you. I am pretty sure the committee will go along with my recommendations; and you have convinced me that you really are sincere. I could recommend you for a higher grant due to these exceptional circumstances."

My spirits rose. I felt my mouth turning up in a smile of delighted gratitude. But it was his next words which were to turn my world topsy-turvy, and prove Who was really running the universe.

"However," he continued, "I feel this is an enormous responsibility. I have a daughter your age. Before helping her along in any direction, I would want to be sure that that is what she realIy wants. Unfortunately you don't have a father to do that for you. If I recommend you, I will be taking the responsibility of propelling you in that direction. Now I am ready to do that, but on one condition; namely that you are sure and certain that that is what you want, and nothing else. So tell me Leah, are you a hundred percent certain that you wish to study classical languages in University?"

Looking back, I find that an extraordinary question. After all, if I wasn't sure, what was I doing there, writing preposterous letters to that august educational body, and bothering this kind, caring gentleman? Perhaps it was meant as a solely rhetorical question. If so, Councilor Singer was in for a surprise; for my response was even more sensational than his query. In fact it amazed even me.

"Well, I'm sure I want to teach," I heard myself say, "but there is something I would like to teach even more than Latin and Greek."

"What's that?"

"It's teaching Jewish subjects — Torah subjects."

"Oh — then why don't you?"

"The same old bugbear — no money." I explained how Gateshead Seminary was a private institution, with no public funding.

"It's rather like a Talmudic Yeshiva except that it's for girls," was the closest, though rather erroneous, description I could manage. I fear that he gained from my portrayal a rather hazy concept of what a seminary actually is, as indeed I had myself at that time. We must not forget that this whole concept of a higher Jewish education for girls was a completely novel idea in England of the forties, the brainchild of Mr. Kohn, of blessed memory, its founder and Principal.

Councilor Singer listened carefully to my explanation. A few moments of silence elapsed. "You know," he brought out slowly, "I've heard over and over again that the Jewish communities need good teachers to educate the youth. If the gentiles are prepared to allocate you a grant in order to study their culture, why should the Jews not do the same to enable you to teach Jewish subjects?"

"But under whose auspices?" I was perplexed. For a moment I wondered if my would-be benefactor was as naive as myself, but I soon perceived my error.

Councilor Singer was smiling knowingly. "I have a good idea. It so happens that I saw a notice posted at the Jewish Center announcing a meeting of the Jewish Education Committee for this very afternoon. You know — the committee in charge of Stanfield Talmud Torah. I'm not a member, myself, but no matter. I propose to go there today, present your story to them, and ask if they would finance your education at this seminary you wish to attend!"

I was absolutely flabbergasted. Events were rapidly pursuing a course I had not dreamed of. "But I never studied at Stanfield Talmud Torah," I reminded him. "I had already graduated when we moved here."

"So what? You live here now. Besides, you could always offer to teach for them when you qualify," he added shrewdly.

Nothing more could surprise me in this strange "wonderland" that Stanfield had suddenly become. Councilor Singer attended the meeting as promised. The Jewish Education Committee did agree to his peculiar proposition — namely that they should finance the education of a girl whom they did not know, who had not been educated in their Talmud Torah, at a seminary they had never heard of, at the request of a gentleman who was not even a member of their committee!

From a natural point of view, we might say that this amazing decision was wrought in large part due to the influence of the President of the Committee, a certain Mr. Anshel Klein, who bore the proud distinction of being one of the few Shomer Shabbos members. To any believing Jew, however, the hand of Hashem was strikingly clear.

What impelled Councilor Singer to ask me if I really wanted to attend university? Why did I reply as I did? Was it because subconsciously I had never given up hope of a seminary education all the intervening years? I prefer to believe that my father of blessed memory was pleading with Hashem to place these words in our mouths, so that I should not waste years of my life studying the culture of Yavan and Edom, our arch enemies, instead of our own Holy Torah.

Thus it came about that exactly one week after my interview with Councilor Singer, I found myself in Gateshead Seminary. This was miracle number one.

But it's not quite the end. Miracle number two was perhaps even more remarkable. Mr. Kohn, our Principal, had written that it would be better if I did not wait for the commencement of the new term in September. He would like me to get the "feel" of the place by coming right away for the Yomtov of Shavuos; so that when the new term began I would already be "heimish."

That was why I was already there so soon after my interview with Councilor Singer. As events turned out, if it were not for this early arrival, I would never have arrived at all. My whole life would have been different.

The very next Sunday following that crucial meeting, there was another meeting of the Stanfield Jewish Education Committee; this time to elect new officers. Sad to relate, Mr. Anshel Kline was not re-elected. The new president, a man who was completely irreligious, saw no reason to honor the prior decision of the previous officers to send an unknown girl to what he labeled "that meshuge frum place" and they wrote me to come home.

I shall never forget my anguish on the day I received their letter, which soon became sodden with my tears; as I succumbed to feelings of utter despair. In the one week I had been there I had grown to love the seminary, the teachers, my classmates and of course the wonderful Torah lessons, with all my being. I was more convinced than ever that this was where I belonged and this is what I wanted to do with my life. And now it appeared that I was losing this marvelous new world, so soon after I had acquired it.

But I was reckoning without the outstanding kindliness of our Principal, Mr. Kohn, of blessed memory, to whom I shall be eternally grateful.

"What nonsense!" he said, on learning of my predicament. "Now we know you, we want you to stay. We don't want to lose you any more than you want to go. Do not worry at all about tuition. That's our problem. We want you to stay for the full three years."

Our sages relate that when the time for the yeshua comes, Hashem does not delay it even a moment. That's how it was when Yosef was hurried out of prison, and rushed before Pharoh, and that's how it will be when Moshiach comes. And that's how it was when I came to Gateshead.


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