Breakfast with Malke Bina. The sabra waitress in jeans asks if she wants an English menu.
I laugh. “She knows Hebrew very well, also Aramaic.”
The waitress pauses and says that she, too, knows Aramaic pretty well.
It turns out that this young woman studied in a local high school under the tutorship of one of Bina’s students.
Then she went on to study Torah for a year after high school in an intensive program where several of Bina’s students teach, and just this summer took a pre-holiday booster course, again with Bina graduates.
Unscripted, our waitress has demonstrated just how broad Bina’s impact on women’s Torah education has been.
Once upon a time, not long ago, in the Holy City of Jerusalem, few women knew Torah well enough to teach it to other women. And then came the revolution.
With her quiet manner and long sleeves, Bina doesn’t look like a revolutionary.
(Okay, there’s the jaunty derby hat.) Her signature institution, The Sadie Rennert Women’s Institute for Torah Studies – better known as Matan, its Hebrew acronym – is celebrating 25 years on Succot. Tens of thousands of women have studied there, some to be able to pass on the knowledge that was once so hard for women to acquire, and others for the sake of and pleasure in Torah study. We’re officially having breakfast to talk about Matan, but when you’re with Bina, it’s easy to glide into other topics. I’d rather schmooze.
Coffee first. We were both up late for slihot, the soulful pre-High Holy Days penitential prayers. Bina has said her entreaties in the women’s section of Netiv Aryeh, a men’s yeshiva headed by her husband Rabbi Aharon Bina.
Certain other women’s study programs have women’s slihot, with hundreds of women gathering to pray in unison. A spiritual happening.
Not at Matan.
“We’re not a synagogue, we’re a study center,” says Bina. Women study prayer and the role of women in prayer, and students pray, but Bina has kept the controversy over women’s role in public prayer services out of Matan. Students and teachers choose their own nuances of organized prayer services. It’s typical of her approach, avoiding conflict, staying focused, trying to make Matan appealing to a broad spectrum of women.
She’s comfortable praying behind the curtain at her husband’s yeshiva, although she understands that many women would not be. She’s comfortable being called “Rabbanit Bina” because she’s married to a rabbi, but also because she is a Torah teacher. She’s comfortable with – and proud of – the women at Matan having completed the demanding seven-year cycle of daily Talmud, Daf Yomi, and starting a new one. She was comfortable when Matan teacher Rachelle Sprecher Fraenkel, mother of kidnapped and murdered 16-year-old Naftali Fraenkel, recited the kaddish prayer at his funeral. And she’s comfortable with and especially proud of the Hilchata, the advanced Jewish law program at Matan that Fraenkel heads: five years of comprehensive Jewish studies parallel to a rabbi’s, leading to the ability to make halachic calls in matters including ritual purity, dietary laws and matrimonial issues.
“Pick your fights” is one of Bina’s life mottoes. She’d rather sidestep stumbling blocks than bash into them. She likes to be a catalyst and then observe with interest what she sees as an organic evolution.
Bina was my teacher, too, almost 40 years ago. I still know the section of the Talmud that I studied with her better than any I’ve learned since. It wasn’t just her adeptness at teaching.
You couldn’t help absorbing how much Rabbanit Bina loved this material. Torah study is always far more than the material on the page. She also had little life tips scattered along the way. One of those has stayed with me as well: “Eat bread instead of crackers so you can ritually wash and say the whole blessing – besides, you’re not saving calories.”
Indeed, we’re eating bagels. We wash and say the blessings.
Back then, my fiancé had suggested that I add textual study to my Jewish education. I remember not liking the presumption of it, but after getting over that, I agreed. I was living close to the central bus station, where there was a new branch of what was then called Shapell’s – a women’s program under the auspices of the Itri Yeshiva. The modest school was run by Rabbi Chaim Brovender (who was later to be associated with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Ohr Torah Stone). It was groundbreaking in that women were learning Gemara – and Brovender allegedly had his tires slashed.
Bina, a young mom, was the senior women’s teacher.
Those readers who are familiar with the Jerusalem Torah study world know that this particular constellation of teachers and institutions was eventually to break apart and become half a dozen different programs. Varied orientations would develop from it. But back then, they were all together, and Malke Bina was the perfect teacher and role model.
She had come to Israel from Baltimore at 17 and studied at the Michlala Jerusalem College for Women, later earning a master’s in Bible at the Revel Graduate School of Yeshiva University. She soon met Aharon Bina, who was studying at a yeshiva and was the son of a wellknown and admired yeshiva educator in Jerusalem. They studied Torah on dates, and he helped her with a Jewish law paper based on Maimonides.
“I liked to get to the source and was looking things up in the Gemara,” she said. “Moving on to formal Torah study was a natural progression.”
Bina’s own father was Rabbi Baruch Milokowsky, a beloved and admired educator in Baltimore. He had escaped the Holocaust, leaving his hometown of Vishino – today in Belarus – for Shanghai with the Mir Yeshiva. He’d made his way to America, kept his long beard and European style.
She’s named for his mother, Malke, who was murdered by the Nazis.
About a decade ago, I made a film about Bina when she received Hadassah’s Women of Distinction Award.
(She’s a current awardee of the Nefesh B’Nefesh Boneh Yerushalayim Award for immigrants who have contributed to Israeli society.) She didn’t speak much of her illustrious father as her role model, but of her maternal grandmother, Kreindel Goldman.
Bina’s grandmother grew up in the hassidic community of Rzeszow, near Lizehensk, and was related to the famed Rebbe Elimelech Weisblum; she got her genes from his daughters.
Young Kreindel wanted to join the Torah lessons her brothers were receiving at home. She was outraged that she was denied it, listening to what she could through the door. When she married, her husband, Yosef Shmuel, studied Torah with her, and she loved it. Tragically her husband was killed in the first German bombing in September 1939.
She managed to sell the property and flee with Bina’s mother, Leah, to Siberia.
When they eventually got to Baltimore after the war, they had only the $100 the HIAS foundation gave immigrants.
Kreindel spent $18 of it on a red dress for her eligible daughter. It was a good investment. A mutual friend introduced the intelligent and comely young hassidic girl to Milokowsky, a fellow immigrant from a Lithuanian yeshiva background and a beloved educator at the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore.
Bina, one of four siblings, remembers her mother dispatching her with a message for her father, and her hesitance in approaching the beit midrash, the men’s study center, with its cacophony of voices, men arguing over texts in pairs.
Today she spends much of her day in Matan’s beit midrash, the heart of the school, which draws women to apply the skills necessary to unpack the meaning of challenging Torah texts.
Grandma Kreindel was also Bina’s personal role model in prayer and faith.
“My core belief – imbibed with my mother’s milk – is that there is a Godly master plan for the universe, and there are hidden reasons for the terrible things that happen,” she says.
Another image from her past: Young bride Malke Bina is celebrating Simhat Torah at her father-in-law’s yeshiva in the Old City. A group of young women, behind the mehitza – the curtain that separates men and women – begins to dance in a circle. Bina – remember that one side is hassidic – joins them. Her mother-in-law whispers in her ear: “In this yeshiva, this isn’t done.” Bina sits down, although she doesn’t like it.
“I loved my mother-in-law,” she says.
“She was a wonderful help to me as a young mother without my parents in Israel, but she was from a different generation.
I wanted to dance.”
It was Bina’s husband, by then becoming a rabbi, who suggested that she give up an early job teaching junior high school girls English and get involved in the beginning study program at the Itri Yeshiva.
Bina encourages the pirouetting of ideas in her students, valuing the creativity they bring to the text, at the same time making sure it’s coupled with in-depth understanding of the sources.
When Rabbi Brovender opened his own women’s college, Midreshet Bruria, Bina came along as his deputy director.
Bina had been teaching for 15 years when Midreshet Bruria changed administrations, and she decided this was a good time to take a break and reevaluate.
Several of her advanced students, most notably Jerusalemites Lily Weill and Susan Hochstein, prevailed on her to teach them privately. Others joined around Weill’s dining room table. Afterward, they adjourned to the living room to debrief.
Somewhere between the texts and the tea, Matan was born.
That was a quarter of a century ago.
Today, Matan’s main campus is located on Rashbag Street in Jerusalem’s Katamonim neighborhood, a grudgingly gentrifying lower-middle-class neighborhood.
An after-school program for neighborhood kids occupies the lower floor. Classes are in English and Hebrew on a wide range of Jewish subjects. Students are encouraged to continue to study the basics – the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets and Judges – while delving into Oral Law and Jewish philosophy.
The teachers, both women and men, usually have graduate degrees and impressive Torah-study credentials. There is an international program for bat mitzva girls and their moms, but students are usually 18 and older – sometimes much older. Nonagenarians take classes, too.
A smaller Matan center, Matan Hasharon, named for the late Mindy Greenberg, has over 700 students in Ra’anana. There are six additional satellites with morning classes in towns scattered around the country.
Grandma Kreindel – you had to listen behind the door while your brothers were studying. How pleasant it must be to look down from Heaven to see how many doors Granddaughter Malke has opened.
■ The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.
The views in her columns are her own.