'Daughters of the Torah' explore history, religion, life

Margaret Smith

On a recent rainy Sunday, when the downpour might have been incentive to sleep in, members of Bnot Torah instead were ready to learn.

They gathered in a classroom at the Munroe Center for The Arts for a seminar on history, faith, and a few revolutionary rabbis whose legacy endures in Jewish scholarship.

Seminar leader Rabbi Roy Rosenbaum, a teacher at Maimonides High School in Brookline, spoke about Hillel — a revered scholar associated with the Talmud and Mishnah texts, and whose works became a catalyst for social and economic change.

Rosenbaum summed up Hillel’s philosophy in one of the sage’s most famous quotes.

“If I am only for myself, what am I?”

Hillel lived in Roman-occupied Babylon. Emperor Augustus ruled the far-flung empire, and while many of his subjects prospered, many others, including Hillel, lived in poverty. His low status did not discourage him from seeking knowledge, however.

Rosenbaum spoke about the famous disputes between Hillel and another great scholar of the age — Shammai, a rivalry whose legacy lingers.

The seminar was part of the current semester of seminars offered by of Bnot Torah — meaning, “Daughters of The Torah” in Hebrew — founded 15 years ago to promote learning about all aspects of Jewish life, religion and history.

Each semester’s seminars focus on a specific theme; the current theme is, “Three Talmudic Sages And Their Impact On Judaism.”

Making it happen

Bnot Torah was founded by Lexington resident Dr. Robin Gendelman, an ophthalmologist, to offer classes for women who wanted to explore their Jewish faith.

“About 15 years ago, I was brainstorming with a few friends. There were no good Jewish classes specifically for women,” said Gendelman. “I said, ‘Why don’t we make it happen?’”

Gendelman said they reached out to instructors in the area, including some at Hebrew College, and invited friends in the area to participate.

The first seminars took place on Gendelman’s screened-in porch.

“Luckily, the weather was good. We had treats and cakes, and it was very successful. That is when the idea was born,” she said.

Over the years, the classes have been held in various locations. Most recently, they have been taking place at the Munroe Center for the Arts in Lexington.

Although the classes are geared toward women, many are open to men as well. The themes encompass many areas, including interpretations of Biblical texts, gender roles, science and religion, and exploring the lives of biblical figures.

“If the topics are not specific to women, men can join,” Gendelman said. “With some issues that pertain to women, sometimes women are a little shy in a mixed group to bring up some topics.”

In recent years, Bnot Torah has convened seminars in the spring and the fall, each semester focusing on a specific theme.

“We were getting people from as far as Lowell or Manchester, so people were hearing about it from an amazing number of places,” Gendelman said, adding that participants also come from Belmont, Winchester, Arlington, and Burlington.

“We do get a lot of returnees. Every so often, we will get a person from four or five years ago. We have about eight to 10 regulars. Overall, we get about 15 to 20 people per class,” she said.

While most participants are Jewish and represent various movements within Judaism, the classes have attracted participants from other faiths.

Many voices, many backgrounds

Diverse participants means varied points of view, and sometimes debate.

When looking at the prophets — who in biblical tradition convey messages to kings and peoples, sometimes urging them to reform their ways — Gendelman said it’s important to examine their lives as well their words. “With any of the prophets and kings, we see that they are human beings. They have human foibles, like the rest of us,” she said.

On one occasion, Gendelman enlisted the help of a dancer, who performed her interpretation of the biblical story of Naomi, the mother in-law of Ruth, the grandmother of King David.

A fashion show and a cappella singing group have been part of past seminars.

Gendelman hopes for many more years of Bnot Torah, and to keep exploring many aspects of faith.

She said, “I like that it is unique and an original women’s group that is unique to this area.”

Lifelong learners

Judy Izen of Lexington, an early Bnot Torah collaborator, said traditionally, the focus has been on Orthodox teachers but that lately the seminars have brought in teachers of other Jewish traditions.

“I think Jewish education is very important,” said Izen, adding that some participants — as with an estimated 40 percent of Jews overall — are not affiliated with any temple or synagogue.

She said many unaffiliated Jews may seek out other opportunities to stay connected, including adult education classes, and faith-based organizations such as Hadassah.

“I think people feel less encumbered coming to a neutral place, especially people who might have some ambivalence,” Izen said. “Hopefully, they will experience different points of view.”

Allene Horowitz, a 32-year Lexington resident with a background in learning and development, said, “I have been involved (with Bnot Torah) since the beginning. For me, what is wonderful is that you have women from such diverse backgrounds coming together, studying together. They enhance each other’s learning.”

She added, “There is such a camaraderie in this group that people are not intimidated. Robin works hard to make sure we have excellent speakers.”

Among her favorite classes are those she said illuminated the lives of biblical figures. “Once you understand the humanity of these people, the way you interpret their texts changes.”

She said, “This class that I go to is something that I do for me. It’s a way for me to grow spiritually.”

To learn more about Bnot Torah, visit

Margaret Smith is Arts and Calendar editor at GateHouse Media New England’s Northwest Unit.