‘Counting Toward Sinai’

‘Counting Toward Sinai’

OU’s Women’s Initiative podcasts include local teachers as they look toward Shavuot

Aviva Orlian, Rivka Alter, Shoshana Schechter
Aviva Orlian, Rivka Alter, Shoshana Schechter

Some things don’t change. Like the omer, the 49 days that lead from the second evening of Pesach to Shavuot; from the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt to Mount Sinai, at Shavuot, when they received the Torah.

Some things do change, bit at a time. Like the understanding of women’s scholarship in the Orthodox Jewish world, which has evolved to the point where women’s scholarship is honored and women are sought out as teachers, mainly but not exclusively of other women.

Other things change radically and immediately. Case in point, the way we all are living now, as we shelter from the pandemic stalking like the angel of death outside our doors.

The value the Jewish world puts on teaching and learning Torah hasn’t changed either. For the last two years, the Orthodox Union’s Women’s Initiative program has placed women scholars in member shuls across North America. Some have taught in their own shuls, and some traveled to other communities. The scholars have taught over Shabbat and then on the rest of the weekend, illuminating different aspects of Torah, of Talmud, and of other Jewish texts.

This year, the Women’s Initiative, headed by Rebbetzin Dr. Adina Shmidman, had planned to send scholars to communities, as it had done the year before. Planning was well underway. But then — woman plans, virus replicates, and then Plan B beckons.

This year, the OU Women’s Initiative will mark the days between Pesach and Shavuot with podcasts by women scholars. It’s called “Counting Toward Sinai,” and it offers shiurim about tefillot — prayer, both specific prayers at the act of praying. It’s for learners on every level, women and men too.

The women who have made the podcasts come from all over — the United States and Canada, the United Kingdom and Israel; quite a few of them come from Bergen and Rockland counties.

Rivka Alter, who lives in Bergenfield with her husband and children, taught in the program last year. She’s from Englewood, graduated from Stern College and earned her master’s degree in teaching from YU’s Azrieli School; she’s now working on a doctorate “looking at some of the more progressive movements in teaching Tanach,” she said. She teaches at the Yeshiva University High School for Girls in Queens; the institution is better known as Central. Her husband, Rabbi Daniel Alter, is the head of the Moriah School in Englewood; before that, he was a pulpit rabbi in Denver. Last year, Ms. Alter went back to Denver to teach for the Women’s Initiative. “I asked them if they were sure they wanted me,” she said; they might have been more interested in someone new. But no, the invitation was specifically for her, and so she went. “It actually was very nice,” she said. She was primed to repeat the experience, but to go somewhere new this year. And then the world changed, and her scholar-in-residence weekend turned into a five-or-so minute podcast.

She’ll be talking about Aleinu, the literally every day prayer — in fact the thrice-daily prayer — that ends minyanim.

Why? “Because I hadn’t looked into it for a while, and I felt like I wanted to focus on something that I also would learn from,” she said. “I start the podcast by saying that although our association with the Aleinu is everyday, its real origin goes back to its being a Rosh Hashanah prayer from the time of the Gemara. It’s commonly attributed to the Rav” — the third-century Babylonian amora — “and that is kind of cool.” It’s still one of the centerpieces of the holiday liturgy today.

“During the High Holidays the pace of the tefillah in general is slower, and you can concentrate more on the words,” Ms. Alter said. “I can have more kavannah” — more intention, more focus, more spiritual connection — “for the Aleinu, and I can carry that into the everyday prayer.”

The prayer is also interesting historically, she continued. The triumphalist parts, where everyone bows down to our God, often offended the Christians who held power, and so were omitted. “That’s why in some places many of us say that part out loud,” she said; now we say those words, but then they were omitted, and the section was said aloud to ensure compliance. The stakes were high.

“In the podcast, I spoke about the historical parts, and then also about some interesting differences in the first and second paragraphs thematically,” Ms. Alter said. “The first paragraph talks more about the present situation, where we are a nation are the ones who declare belief in one God. The second is in the future, where everyone will come to that realization. In the first paragraph, God is referred to in the third person. In the second paragraph, it’s the second person. You’re talking to God.”

She doesn’t address the pandemic directly, Ms. Alter said, but “tefillah is more meaningful to a lot of people during this period. And Aleinu ends in a hopeful way,” and hope, right now, is a very useful thing.

Her podcast will be released on the 40th day of the omer.

Aviva Orlian will teach the next day. Like Ms. Alter, Ms. Orlian taught for the Women’s Initiative last year, and had planned on repeating that this year, until the virus struck. She lives in Monsey with her husband and children.

Ms. Orlian grew up in Baltimore, went to high school in Bais Yakov there. She’s trained as a speech pathologist, and made her career in that field; she’s also been teaching women’s classes in Tanach and other subjects for the last quarter of a century. “That’s my passion,” she said. “It’s the other part of me.”

That passion comes from her background, she said. Her parents, Rabbi Yoel and Shoshana Feldman, both were profoundly important in shaping her, but in particular it was her mother’s ability to move in both the secular and the Jewish worlds, and to move in both as an intellectual, that was most formative. “My mother, ale’hah h’shalom, taught English in the Baltimore public school system and also gave well-attended, stimulating bimonthly women’s Chumsh classes,” Ms. Orlian said. “She was involved in many areas of adult Jewish learning in her community for close to 40 years — and at a time when it was not the norm to be educated in both worlds. She had an articulate style that appealed to such a diverse audience, and watching her, with her unique poetic style, instilled in me a reverence for Torah and for women’s education.

“She was one of a kind.”

Ms. Orlian’s choice of subject and style of teaching show her mother’s influence. She’ll be teaching Shir Shel Yom Sheni, the psalm for Mondays. “I chose that because I had just gotten off the heels of studying and teaching sefer Shmuel Bais” — the second Book of Samuel, which tells the story of King David — “for the OU’s Torat Imecha Nach Yomi program. “The second book of Shmuel tells of the experiences of Dovid Hamelech, both the practical challenges and the spiritual challenges he went through.”

The psalm she chose, Psalm 48, “speaks about the centrality of Jerusalem,” Ms. Orlian said. “He always had a passion to build the bais hamikdash” — the Temple — “and certainly he is looking over the city that he how acquired and speaking about its centrality to the Jewish people.

“It is a very uplifting mizmor” — song — “because you can almost sense the joy as Yerushalayim is described from the vantage point of those who would be oleh regel” — who would be walking to Jerusalem for the festivals, as God commanded them to do.

“There is no mention of the word ‘Yerushalayim,’” she continued. “Its identity is obvious. What other city would be called ‘Ir Hakodesh’?” The Holy City? “The city itself testifies to the greatness of Hashem, and His shechinah abides there. No other city has that. And it describes the city as the ‘yefe nof,’ the seat of beauty. As ‘mesos kal haaretz,’ the seat of authentic happiness. As ‘Har Zion,’ a testament to the connection between the people and Hashem.

“It tells everyone who reads it to take a walk around Jerusalem. To focus on it. To put your heart on it. It will transcend time. It should be etched in our hearts. It speaks of the unanimous sentiments of all who have seen it and heard of it. It is able to connect us with the past, present, and future. Perhaps we have seen a partial fulfillment of this mizmor. Pre-1967, who would have thought that we would be zoche” — that we would merit — “to witness the incredible jewish presence and growth of Jerusalem? This mizmor gives us hope that we will see a complete fulfillment of these words.”

Dr. Shoshana Schechter will give the next-to-last podcast, on the 49th day of the omer. She bridges Rockland and Bergen; she grew up in Englewood and now lives in New Hempstead with her husband and children. She’s about to become the associate dean of Jewish studies at Stern College; she’s also an assistant professor of Bible and the director of the mechina program there.

Last year, she taught for Counting Toward Sinai in Seattle, and the year before that, the program’s inaugural year, she taught in suburban Los Angeles; she was going to go to the West Coast again this year, “and then the world changed,” Dr. Schechter said. Although she loved the program as it worked in person, there are some advantages to doing it this way; “you can reach many more people worldwide than I could in the the communities I went to those two years.”

Her podcast is about the prayer of the kohanim. “Because I am a professor of Bible, I wanted to chose a topic that comes from the Bible,” she said. She teaches students to look at the text analytically, but she realized that this often overlooks the spiritual dimension; it’s that dimension that she’d like to approach in her podcast. “It’s from the book of B’Midbar, when they are about to leave Har Sinai, and God tells Moses, before you leave, tell Aaron to give this blessing.

“When I was a little girl, I remember hearing the Birkat Kohanim, and you always know as a kid that you aren’t supposed to look from behind your father’s tallit.” But then she didn’t know what she was hearing. She didn’t know what it meant.

“So what are the kohamin saying? Basically there are three parts to it. There is the idea that we are looking to God to provide for us physically and spiritually. The first part is physical, the second part is spiritual, and the third part is a combination. The first one is three words, the next one is five words, and then the third is seven words. The relationship to God is transitioning; they need to understand that God is still with them, even if they don’t see him. That will give us the inner peace that we need.”

It’s a good lesson for this odd time, Dr. Schechter said. “With this pandemic, the future is unknown and scary, but if we remember that God is here for us, to take care of our physical and spiritual needs, there is comfort in that.

“We can go peacefully even through stressful and scary and unknown times, because we know that God has our back. God is in this with us. That is meaningful. And that is why Hashem wants them to hear it when the leave Har Sinai. They will not see God in their midst as clearly as they did before, but they can take God with them.”

Why does the blessing have to be presented with such drama, with all the choreography that accompanies it on the festivals when the kohamin present it today? Because you have to be prepared to receive it, Dr. Schechter said. She told a story from the Gemara. “When Moses was up on Har Sinai and he saw God finishing the Torah, God said to him, ‘Moshe, aren’t you going to greet me?’ Moshe said, ‘You are God. Why do you need me? Why would God need my help?’ But God needed Moshe’s help in preparing the people for the beautiful gift they were aboutto receive.

“It’s like if you have a field, and it rains. If you have prepared the field, it if it plowed and planted, the rain is a blessing.” It if’s not, you get mud. “It’s only a blessing if you are prepared for it.

“We have to get ready for the blessing. We have had good lives. We have had blessings in our lives. So the kohamin are saying, ‘Listen, everyone. The blessings of God are coming. Be prepared to receive them.

“‘Don’t take what we have for granted.’

“This is the blessing of the kohanim.”

The podcasts are online at www.ou.org/women/counting-toward-sinai-podcast; it’s its easier to search than to type, go to ou.org/women and click on the link there.

The series will end at Shavuot; the podcasts will be up for longer, so their message will be available whenever anyone wants to download them.