ARRIVALS: Making the extraordinary normal

For some, making aliya means rolling up your sleeves and getting to work.

(photo credit: GLORIA DEUTSCH)
For a woman to be elected head of an Orthodox congregation in Israel is very rare, possibly unique. But Shelli Weisz is used to doing out-ofthe- ordinary things.
The 62-year-old Cleveland native, who made aliya in 2013 with her husband, Tom, is a renowned teacher of Torah whose lectures are enthusiastically attended by men and women alike.
The petite Weisz is also heavily involved in a group that seeks to aid haredi women who want to start their own businesses; teaches regularly in several communities other than her own south Netanya one; and is also known to be an accomplished cook and hostess.
In her spacious apartment, with its inspiring view of the sea from her lounge window, Weisz explains what is involved in being a synagogue chairwoman.
“It’s basically overseeing the day-to-day running of the shul,” she says.
The South Netanya Ashkenazi Congregation (SNAC) was started 10 years ago by olim from England. It immediately became a home away from home for the many Anglo tourists who love Netanya but want something a little more spiritual in their lives than just sight-seeing and sunbathing.
Even though prayers are held in borrowed and uncomfortable premises in the basement of an apartment building, it has a lively and faithful congregation with a resident Anglo rabbi and plenty of congregants who can run a service capably. The municipality is soon to provide more suitable premises, once some red tape has been untangled.
Weisz grew up in an Orthodox family in the States and, like many Jewish children, went to heder (Hebrew classes) twice during the week and again on Sundays.
“But I felt I wanted more,” she says. “While I was still a teenager, I began studying Kabbala with a rabbi who had gained his qualification from Aish HaTorah Yeshiva in Jerusalem. From the first lesson, I was hooked.”
She studied medical technology at Kent State University.
She’d wanted to do medicine but was discouraged by her family, which felt it wasn’t suitable for an observant Jewish girl.
Her first job was managing a special hematology lab in Cleveland, which she ran for eight years. She married and had a son and daughter, but her marriage floundered and is not something she wants to dwell on.
In 1996 she married Tom, whom she met on a blind date. Together, they ran a computer business, which they sold in 2005, retiring to Florida.
“We both decided we didn’t want to see snow anymore,” she says with a smile.
They moved to Aventura, a Miami suburb, which is 96% Jewish. They became involved in the synagogue, and Shelli taught classes there. But when several of their children – including her daughter, who had decided to stay in Israel after spending a gap year here – made aliya, they decided to follow suit.
Although teaching takes up much of her time, Weisz is also very involved with the organization she co-founded with the daughter of her rabbi mentor – The Jewish Woman Entrepreneur.
“This is one of my activities I’m especially proud of,” she says. “We give business advice, help to balance the books, teach them how to give the pitch to investors and many other skills they might need.”
Very often, the haredi women don’t even own computers, don’t drive cars, and yet have business ideas they want to promote.
The nonprofit organization is in America and is run entirely on a volunteer basis. Weisz is still able to contribute through emails and Skype.
But running SNAC takes priority.
“It’s a nonjudgmental, unique community which fills a religious and a communal need,” she says. “I hope, as a woman, I’ll be able to bring sensitivity and compassion to the role of chairman.”