The Three Weeks that lead into Tisha B’Av always are a time that demands serious self-reflection, study, and thoughtfulness from traditional Jews. It’s a time to think about Jewish history; about tragedy and disaster and also about resilience and eventually about hope. It’s a time to consider what it would mean for history to repeat itself; how we can learn about decisions, about wisdom and folly, and about avoidable mistakes and unavoidable necessities.
This year, the Three Weeks, like Tisha B’Av itself, are odd; we must behave as if we are entirely self-sufficient, each one of us an island, while remembering always that we are not.
If we cannot learn together, how can we learn? Who should learn? What do we learn?
The Orthodox Union’s Women’s Initiative has come up with two series of programs for women that began on Monday, July 13, and are set to run through Tuesday, July 28; Tisha B’Av begins the evening of Wednesday, July 29, and ends at sundown on Thursday.
Adeena Mayerfeld of Teaneck is the OU Women’s Initiative’s program and operations manager. “We have seen that as summer programs have been canceled and summer plans have been thrown off for women across the country — really, around the world — there is a desire, even a need, for them to be involved in programs. To be inspired. And these unique programs allow women to participate from the comfort and safety of their own homes.”
The first program, Alit, “is an in-depth learning program,” she said. “It’s a series of courses, with about five classes in each course, led by women who are world-class lecturers. The goal for Alit is to provide a high-level learning program where women will be able to connect with the educators, and the educators will be facilitating hands-on learning and discussion.”
The teachers — there are six of them, all women, all well known as OU educators — each will teach a class for five Mondays and Wednesdays or Tuesdays and Thursdays; there are three classes taught each day. They’ll all be on Zoom.
“The style will vary from teacher to teacher,” Ms. Mayerfeld said. “Some will incorporate questions and answers, some will use chat, some will incorporate features in Zoom that allow smaller-group instruction. The teachers will prepare sources for the groups.”
There are no size limits for the classes, she added; “on average, we hope to have roughly 30 to 40 women in each class. The goal is a smaller group.” But all of it, during this first coronavirus Three Weeks, in new and uncharted.
The courses will be in both English and Hebrew. “We have world-class teachers who are able to adapt the material to different audiences and different levels,” Ms. Mayerfeld said. “They are very adept at assessing their students’ abilities and interests on the spot.” Although it’s far harder to do that on Zoom than in person, when a master teacher can read students’ facial expressions and body language and sense the temperature in the room, all of these teachers are experienced in Zoom. “They are all working very hard to make the experience beneficial to their students.
“We are committed to finding avenues to help women feel connected and have in-person interactions over Zoom.”
In June, the Women’s Initiative held its annual leadership summit; this year’s was virtual. “We spent hours with the presenters, working with them on the material, laying out the structure, and planning how we can run question and answer sessions,” Ms. Mayerfeld said. “We want to be as inclusive and interactive and involve as many women as possible. There is a lot of planning that’s necessary to accomplish that goal.”
The women also experimented with the format during the summit. “The feedback we received for the sessions where we incorporated personal interaction has been amazing,” Ms. Mayerfeld said. “Women said things like ‘It is amazing to feel that we are together, even though I am alone,’ and ‘I felt like I was at the conference, even though I was just at my computer.’
“The preparation has been ongoing. We’ve been in touch with the presenters multiple times before Alit began.”
The other part of the Women’s Initiative Three Weeks program — its formal name is the Three Weeks Ideas and Inspiration series — will run on Mondays and Wednesdays at 1:30. Each class is self-contained. “The lectures are a mixture of text study, literature, history, and architecture, and include a virtual tour of the land of Israel. It will be primarily on Zoom but depending on the speaker, there will be a mixture of platforms,” Ms. Mayerfeld said.
Both courses are only for women. Although one of the classes is focused on the Imahot, the four mothers of the Jewish people whose stories are told in the Torah along with their husbands’ stories, “the others are not specifically geared toward women,” she said. “But the teachers speak to a specific audience and tailor the class to the audience, so the examples and the experiences they use will be about women, because that is more applicable to women.”
Particularly for Alit, “the more tailored the material is to the students’ interests and needs and lives, the more successful it will be, and the more successful the teacher will be in both imparting the information and in creating relationships, both between the teacher and the student and among the students.”
The Alit program has a minimal charge, she added; the other program does not, but donations are welcome.
Ms. Mayerfeld is excited about the programs not only as an administrator but as a woman, an Orthodox Jew, and a student eager to learn from these teachers. “I have benefitted in so many ways from having the privilege of meeting with some of the educators beforehand,” she said. “They are so sensitive to where the women are coming from, and how they can engage them and inspire them and teach them and provide them with high-level learning. It has been incredibly inspiring. I am energized when I speak to each educator. When I go to the preclass Zoom meetings, I can’t wait for the classes because I see their excitement, dedication and expertise.”
They’ve worked hard to translate their teaching methods to online platforms. “These teachers have taken on a second job; since March they have been working to see how they can apply their educational philosophy, methodology, and technique in these circumstances, when communication takes on such a new and different form.
“It is inspiring and motivating. I am motivated to come and enjoy the classes, not just as someone who is helping set them up and run them technically, but also as someone who can benefit personally from what these women have to offer.”
To learn more about the OU Women’s Initiative’s Three Weeks program — and it is not too late! — go to www.ou.org/women/3weeks.