One Friday night in April 1997 I was about to light the Shabbat candles. The telephone rang. I shouted at my son not to pick it up but it was too late. I had to take the call.
It was Jacob, a former student of mine of some four years previous in an adult education program. The Jewish News had reported on the sad passing of Nehama Leibowitz and he knew how upset I would be. He wanted to offer me consolation and to let me know that he, too, was saddened by our loss.
Until that time I hadn’t realised how often I deferred to Nehama in my classes. For Jacob to remember the name and to know what she meant to me indicates how often I used her name and how clear it was that Nechama was the source of my inspiration as a teacher and as a student of Torah.
Nehama Leibowitz, who died in Jerusalem on April 12, 1997 at the age of 92, was a phenomenon in the world of Torah study and education. A Russian born graduate of the University of Berlin who immigrated to Israel in 1931, Nehama became the instructor of three generations of teachers and acquired an extensive and profound influence on Torah pedagogy worldwide-no mean feat for anyone, let alone for a woman. She taught thousands of others inside and outside Israel, including leading public figures. From 1942 to 1971 Nehama issued her renowned ‘circulars’ on the weekly Torah portions, for which undertaking she was later awarded the prestigious Israel Prize.
Nehama would prepare a sheet of questions about the Torah text and selected commentaries, and students from all parts of the world and all walks of life would respond. No correspondence course ever had so many diligent participants over so long a period of time; no other teacher could have sustained such interest for so long. Nearly twenty years after the ‘circulars’ ceased to be formally circulated, her ‘students’ would send in their replies to her questions, and Nehama, red pen in hand, would read them, assess them, and return them. Over 40,000 sheets were counted before the researchers gave up counting!
Nehama was without affectation and without artifice. She lived in a simple apartment, furnished mostly with books. One of her students described it as one of the most important sites in Jerusalem but one which was not found on a tourist’s map. Fortunately for me, I was introduced to Nehama within a week of arriving in Israel in 1989 and had the privilege of learning with her twice a week for two years.
Her students were from diverse backgrounds and levels of commitment to Jewish life. She had two requirements: all her lessons were conducted in Hebrew and all students were expected to be active participants.
All Nehama’s lessons demanded the active participation of everyone in attendance. Students arrived at her apartment as early as possible without being rude – for we were all constantly conscious of impinging on Nehama’s extremely limited personal time. The first ones in had better seats around the large table set in the centre of the main room. More people arriving would have to bring in wooden benches or uncomfortable folding chairs from the balcony.