The human spirit: Moving upstairs

The Californian who had transformed herself into a pious Jerusalemite now transformed herself into a fund-raiser.

Back to School (photo credit: Wikicommons)
Back to School
(photo credit: Wikicommons)
Bonnie Cohen, in fire-engine-red sneakers, is climbing the stairs of the building’s five dusty floors, where the newest Jewish women’s school for Torah teaching is rising. Not one elevator yet. The workman are still lathing and drilling.
She checks out the progress. Here will be the lecture hall, and here the kitchen.
There will be the workout room and the teachers’ lounge. Lots of bathrooms and ritual washing sinks.
Cohen knows the architect’s plan for every classroom, study hall and dorm room, where 72 students will soon eat, sleep and study their very first chapters of the Five Books of Moses. Torah study words like “Rashi,” “midrash” and “Mishna” will begin to roll off their tongues. Lolling in new skirts and longer-sleeved shirts on the roof porch with its view of the gentrifying Jerusalem neighborhood of Romema, they’ll talk about the experience of keeping Shabbat and not touching or being touched by men. They’ll come to this building for a few months or a few years.
The way Bonnie Cohen sees it, after leaving some will stay observant, others won’t, but they all will be changed forever.
Specifically, none of these Jewish women who arrive will even consider marrying a non-Jew.
Cohen is the force behind the new home for the veteran Jewish school, EYAHT, an acronym from the Woman of Valor section of Proverbs, Isha yirat Adoshem hi tit’halel, “A woman who fears God, she shall be praised.” The previous “campus” was three basement rooms in the multi-resident dwellings of the Kiryat Sanz neighborhood, across the street from the home of Rebbetzin Denah Weinberg, who founded EYAHT in 1982.
“I hated to have potential students take one look at the facilities, make a face and walk out,” Cohen says. “These young women come from beautiful homes and well-appointed schools.”
Cohen comes from such a home, too. A Californian now in her 60s, she was only 19 and engaged to be married when she met Detroit-born Alan Cohen. He was taking a break from icy Michigan winters and met the outgoing coed. Bonnie got sick and was hospitalized. Cohen came around every day to visit her, and won her heart away from her previous suitor.
They married.
By the time she was 29, they were building their first big project – a luxurious home in Tarzana in the San Fernando Valley community, on the site of a former ranch owned by Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs. No swinging on trees – just on the golf course. Bonnie opened a chocolate catering company and golfed four times a week, while Alan developed a successful insurance business.
The couple joined a Reform temple and sent their two children to Hebrew school.
They couldn’t tell you much about the Five Books of Moses, let alone the Torah commentator Rashi. They didn’t know a midrash story, commentary from a mishna, part of the Talmud. And they didn’t know anything significant was missing.
Then the tectonic plates of their lives shifted forever, when their daughter told them she was so moved by her college roommate’s devout Christianity that she’d become a Jew for Jesus. Used to holding their own in conversation, they couldn’t even engage her in serious religious disputations. Nor could their rabbi, who assured them she was just going through a passing phase.
The Cohens’ anguish and pursuit for answers for their daughter propelled their own search. When an Orthodox family invited them to a Shabbat dinner, their daughter remained unmoved by this expression of Judaism (as she would remain until today). But Bonnie Cohen recognized that she had experienced something precious, which she wanted in their own lives.
Alan and Bonnie Cohen’s gradual transition to traditional Jewish life was shepherded by the staff of Aish HaTorah, which has a large branch in Los Angeles.
On a first trip to Israel they met late Aish HaTorah founder Rabbi Noach Weinberg and his wife Dena, parents of 12.
Bonnie became a student in Rebbetzin Weinberg’s cramped basement classroom.
In the range of Torah schools for women, EYAHT is long on attitude, called hashkafa. Students are strongly encouraged to conform to the dos and don’ts of the view of strict Orthodoxy while they are studying.
Bonnie wasn’t daunted by Rebbetzin Weinberg’s strong views. Just the opposite.
She admired her sagacity and charisma.
How would she have viewed “The Rebbetzin,” as she calls her, at the golf club? “As soon as she would have begun talking, she would have had everyone enthralled by her wisdom,” says Cohen.
An example? What to do to get started in observing Judaism? “The Rebbetzin says to wear something especially pretty on Saturday,” says Cohen. “That will start changing the way you think about the day.”
The Cohens bought a vacation home in Jerusalem, and when they were in town hosted hundreds of locals, tourists and soldiers for California cuisine Shabbat dinners. In January 1994, Alan was still holding down a job in California despite his frequent absences. They were planning to go home when they were asked to host a speaker. Bonnie wanted to do it, but Alan needed to go back. They quarreled. He gave in. They postponed their ticket for seven days.
In the middle of that week, on January 17, an earthquake rocked the north-central San Fernando Valley at 4:31 a.m. for 20 seconds. Eight thousand, seven hundred Californians were injured. Bonnie and Alan Cohen were not among them.
They were safe in Jerusalem when the 6.7 quake unhitched 350 pounds of lights from their ceiling, and cast them along with their heavy wooden bureau onto their bed. Glass from their wall mirror had already sliced through their blankets.
Their home was condemned.
“We decided not to wait for another sign from God. We moved to Israel,” said Cohen.
From the first moment Bonnie Cohen had stepped into her first classroom at EYAHT, she knew sophisticated women needed a more appealing place to spend long hours of study, no matter how fascinating the subject matter. But while the glorious Aish HaTorah men’s campus rose across from the Western Wall in the Old City, no one seemed to notice that the women were still in the basement.
The Californian who had transformed herself into a pious Jerusalemite now transformed herself into a fund-raiser.
Alan, a gifted salesman himself, encouraged her, but he wouldn’t make the tough phone calls. Bonnie hated asking for money, yet she turned out to be good at it. Her first call yielded $1 million.
The total cost of the building she’s been able to raise money for is $6m. Ten years after starting out, she’s on the last $250,000, supervising the construction before the March 12 dedication and the May opening.
EYAHT’s success, thinks Cohen, is in recruiting a teaching staff of strong women role models, and following up with alumni for years and decades to help resolve personal problems. In addition to what Cohen states is a nonexistent intermarriage rate is a very low divorce rate. “Some complain that the rebbetzin is strict, but it’s hard to argue with her success.”
The expanded school – named for Canadian Judith Dan and American Susan Wilstein – will offer an expanded curriculum, with the Essentials follow-up program to Aish HaTorah’s celebrated one-day Discovery seminar being offered for women as well. There will be shortterm and gap-year program for post-high school students, and special classes for older women.
What pushed her on this largely one-woman obsession with providing greater space for the women’s Torah learning? “Largely, my pain over our own daughter’s turning away from Judaism for our lack of knowledge and inspiration, “ said Cohen. “I like to think of all the young women who come here as daughters. And I’m the cheerleader for their success at being the best Jewish women they can be.”
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.