Sharona Halickman made aliyah in 2004, after working for eight years as a Madricha Ruchanit (a spiritual guide) in Rabbi Avi Weiss’s Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. During her work in Riverdale, Sharona helped to provide Torah study opportunities for the whole Jewish community, including seniors who lived in assisted living communities, people with special needs, and mothers who were home with their children. She was surprised to discover that in Jerusalem, of all places, Torah study was not always as accessible for these groups. “It didn’t make sense,” she tells me. Sharona founded “Torat Reva Yerushalayim” to address this problem, and offer learning opportunities for groups that can’t attend regular classes.
I met Sharona after giving birth to my second child. Parenting a baby can be extremely isolating. One day you are a mature and sophisticated adult with opinions and hobbies, coworkers and friends. The next, you are exiled to baby-land, where a tiny, cute, but demanding creature reigns supreme and you have to put your intellectual and social needs on hold. At the time, I did not think that my need to learn could be answered while my baby stayed home with me. To my surprise, I was wrong. One day I stumbled across the Facebook group “Mommy & Me Torah Study – Jerusalem,” one of Sharona’s longest standing projects, and found myself in an alternative universe where my “plus baby” state did not preclude company and stimulating conversations.
When I came to my first “Mommy and Me” class ever, I was doubtful and hesitant. I worried that the class would be either too difficult to follow while caring for my baby, or too fluffy and unchallenging. I was pleasantly surprised. Sharona showed up with her trademark comprehensive source sheets, and masterfully led us through them and in and out of various intellectual detours. She was extremely responsive to our questions and interests, allowing the discussion to veer into other topics, but always coming back to the topic. At the end of my first class I felt genuinely enlightened. I knew then that I had found an answer to my needs. I knew that I would be able to enjoy company and learning even during my maternity leave.
For SAHMs, stay-at-home mothers, Sharona’s classes offer more than a temporary refuge. Yael Stekel Gabbai, who has attended the “Mommy and Me” classes for the past ten years, explains that they gave her “the opportunity to learn Torah in the morning without compromising my desire to be a SAHM and make learning a priority.” Like myself, Yael was pleasantly surprised when she attended her first class. “I guess I was expecting it to be more formal, where the ladies are sitting together listening to the person giving the shiur (lesson), just without anyone objecting to the babies making noise. I was surprised by how wrong I was. It was totally informal and interactive, and fun for the babies at the same time. It has the feel of attending a rotating play group while learning Torah at the same time.”
When I ask Yael what kept her coming for the past decade, she notes Sharona’s ability to engage with her audience. “Sharona picks out topics that are relevant to our lives,” she elaborates. “And her teaching style is interactive and appropriate for all levels.” Sharona explains that all of Torat Reva’s classes are interactive by design. She, too, enjoys the give-and-take that they create. “I love working with people of all age groups from age two weeks to over one hundred years old, and learning from their experiences.” Sharona remarks that in Israel, even non-religious students from the older generation have “a strong background in Tanach and are familiar with the land. So you will have a 90-year-old guy at a day center catching me every time I try to bring in a midrash. I find that part to be challenging.”
In addition to offering classes, Torat Reva addresses other needs. Sharona was surprised to discover that while “so many of us get so many mishloach manot on Purim, many of Jerusalem’s elderly don’t even get one package.” She started distributing mishloach manot to senior citizens. Similarly, she put together and distributed packages for wounded soldiers during the war.
Torat Reva is, in some ways, a family organization. Sharona named it after her grandmother, who loved Torah study and the state of Israel. And Reva’s great grandchildren help their mother to prepare and distribute the mishloach manot and the care packages, turning these activities into family projects. Sharona’s husband Josh does the accounting work for Torat Reva as a volunteer. You may have heard of him – he reports about Israeli sport events as “the Sport Rabbi”.
Sharona decided early on not to charge her students for the classes. Torat Reva is a non-profit organization that relies on donations. Though fund raising is Torat Reva’s greatest challenge, Sharona remains firm in her decision not to charge. “That way everyone is welcome and equal,” she explains. “Those who can’t pay don’t have to ask for scholarships or not attend.” Sharona’s decision fits her vision perfectly: her classes truly make Torah study accessible to all.
If you wish to donate to “Torat Reva Yerushalayim”, the organization’s site invites people to contribute towards particular programs via checks or Paypal. All contributions are tax deductible and can be made in honor or in memory of a loved one, to celebrate a holiday, or to mark a life cycle event. See the details at: www.toratreva.org.