Miriam Reisler
Miriam Reisler
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From midrasha to beit midrash: A dream comes true in girls’ Jewish education

When you're a teacher who knows your students can achieve so much more than they've been offered, sometimes all you can do is step up and create the opportunity for them yourself
Teaching the students of Midreshet Afikim in 2015. (courtesy)
Teaching the students of Midreshet Afikim in 2015. (courtesy)

Unbelievably, it looks like, in a few short months, my dream of an Israeli girls high school where a beit midrash (hall of study) is the focal point of the educational institution and the girls’ experience is going to become reality.

This particular dream of mine was already in gear the very first year I taught — instead of working on keeping my head above water as I learned the ropes of lessons, tests, and pre-teen girls, it drove me to write my own curricula for each of my classes. The available materials just weren’t on a high enough level, the dream insisted; those girls could most certainly accomplish and appreciate so much more. And that was just the beginning.

The dream drove me to learn and learn so that I could teach and teach.

While a dream state may be thought of in loose terms, white clouds and a soft breeze, long-held dreams are quite the opposite — they are ever evolving, the driving force behind much toil through intensive days and long, wakeful nights.

It drove me to run projects of all kinds with my many students over the years — student-created haggadahs; a well-researched and illustrated booklet of Shabbat songs (zemirot); 20 100-page thesis papers on Tanach (Bible) by 12th graders; educational videos created by me and my students; card games, which have been professionally printed and purchased by others — all of which led to the T-shirt I received as a gift from my wholly supportive husband (or was it a dare?): “Sleep less, dream more.”

So I did. Ten years ago, I created a 10-day summer beit midrash immersion experience for high school girls throughout Israel. Ten students launched Midreshet Afikim, and it was life changing — for them, and also for me. We all learned what was possible, that the opening of doors to young women to the depth and richness of our heritage opens hearts and minds, connects us to our Creator and our history, and brings us closer, deeply and meaningfully, to one another. Since then, the institution has grown: a year-long Talmud program which meets online weekly, a Daf Yomi group, a lineup of exciting speakers, yemei iyun (conferences). What a privilege it has been to meet and learn Torah with the young women who come to these programs! Maybe my dream was satisfied.

Maybe, but quite unlikely. That’s not the way this kind of dream works. Torah is an ever-growing ocean, and as I swim in ever-deeper waters, the wonder of it and the joy it engenders draw me to find horizons that will allow me to help yet others discover this incredible gift.

* * *

This year, which resulted in shrinking dreams and resources for so many, my dream of a high school for girls who love to learn and live Torah might just see the light of day.

When I arrived at the blossoming and growing educational campus of Givat Washington, not far from Ashdod, to present my idea about using the already existing high school framework to support a new track that would embody the ideals of Midreshet Afikim, my passion was met with passion. Mr. Yaki Saada, the CEO of the campus, is a man of dreams who, at the same time, is fully grounded. At once, he grasped that my dream could see fruition, while bringing his complete attention to bear on the practical aspects of getting this venture off the ground. The campus’s unique arts high school for girls, Ulpanat Halelli, reflects in its infrastructure and staff its absolute commitment to excellence and professionalism in dance, art, music, theater and film. Because each discipline is tracked for its dedicated students, establishing a comparable track for intensive Judaic Studies was logistically manageable. Tirza Ben Yitzchak, the visionary principal who heads Ulpanat Halelli, has been instrumental and essential in laying the foundation to open this new vista for young women interested in an exceptionally rich Torah experience in their high school years.

And now, I am waiting impatiently to hear the daily sounds of high school girls filling a place of Torah which they call their own, which is warm like home, and which is filled with the wonder of discovery, songs of the heart through tefilla (prayer) and niggun (melody), and the laughter and joy of a journey traveled with well-loved friends. An environment where ancient ideas are exciting, discussed, considered, and provide the raw material for weekly creation — with the art of words or colors. A school day anchored around the experience of intensive morning and afternoon study sessions (seder boker and seder erev) as well as communal prayer (tefilla), which also encourages each girl to explore the wisdom of the world — math and science, English and the humanities — each according to her interests and motivation. A program which is a blessing for each girl who chooses to join the others who share her interests, and who create a social group that embraces the combination of study and prayer as the basis for personal and spiritual growth.

It is a crazy idea. Ah, the fruits born of that deeply rooted dream. Until recently, it seemed all but impossible. But sometimes the little voice telling you that dreams can become reality is loud and insistent.

Of course, having a dream on the verge of taking off is anything but dreamlike. Much is to be done to ensure that the first year of this program, scheduled to open this coming September, will be an extraordinary beginning for all involved. The goal is for the students not only to know more, but also to experience — learning be-chavruta (with a study partner) and in small groups, having teachers who are mentors and partners, personalizing their respective seats in the beit midrash, baking matza together before Pesach, publishing original Torah research in the school journal, singing or playing an instrument during more casual study sessions (mishmar), celebrating Torah study (siyumim) with friends. But the groundwork is being laid, day after day, the dream preparing for flight.

And hopefully, what will come of this dream will fill the girls’ hearts with love of Torah, and their own dreams for their respective personal futures and the future of the next generation of daughters. Because each of them will be in the driver’s seat, driving her own Torah dreams.

If you are a girl entering 9-12th grade this coming year (or are a parent to one) and this dream makes your heart beat a little faster, I am looking forward to hearing from you (soon)! E-mail via: http://washington.winx.co.il/afikim/, telephone: 073-3746150.

About the Author
Miriam Reisler dove into teaching Torah to women of all ages three decades ago, and has barely come up to breathe since. She has played significant roles in Israel’s Ministry of Education, school administration, and curricula creation that allowed her to shape the Torah experiences of many a young woman. She does love her supportive family (and they love her too).
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