If you and a sibling decided to spend several weeks together, perhaps to rebond after years or decades of occasional visits or meetings at family simchas (or other gatherings), where would you go? To New York or San Francisco, to Europe, or maybe to a quiet spot on the coast or in the mountains? How likely would the Conservative Yeshiva at United Synagogue’s Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center, to study Hebrew and Torah together, be on your list? This summer three pairs of sisters decided to do that.
Lois Bruss and Natalie Shrock grew up in a Conservative family in Silver Spring, Maryland. Lois went off to study psychology in Boston and remained in the area, raising a family in Lexington. Having children in the Hebrew school at Temple Emunah got her more involved; she renewed her Torah reading skills and learned new ones like leading services on Shabbat and weekdays. Lois recently completed her term as president of the congregation, for which her professional skills as an organization effectiveness consultant no doubt helped. Natalie, ten years younger, studied nursing in Maryland and went south, to Plantation, Florida, where she and her husband, an orthopedist, have a business doing clinical research trials. The family is very involved in the Jewish community there, has been to Israel, and Natalie has just begun serving on the board of the Jewish Federation of Broward County. But up to now, her desire to get involved in some kind of Jewish education has not worked out. “I keep meaning to take a class or enroll in a program and I always get sidelined by my everyday life, so it never happens.”
So when Lois told Natalie she was coming to the Conservative Yeshiva’s summer program and invited her to join her, in an apartment and in the beit midrash, “This was the perfect opportunity!” They had not spent this much time together in 35 years.
The experience has been special on several levels. The sisters chose Introductory Talmud and were hevruta partners, “Struggling together in the beginning, and then finally “getting it,” as Lois says, “was an experience we will treasure.” Natalie says the study of Mishnah and Talmud provided a chance “to ponder what being Jewish means to me. I’ve loved learning with my fellow students and being exposed to their ideas.”
No less meaningful has been the opportunity to be together. “We’ve had interesting conversations about what we’ve learned and we’ve also had many laughs wandering around Jerusalem, absorbing the sights, sounds, tastes and smells together,” Natalie reports. “Studying together added a new dimension,” Lois says. “We thought about our three other siblings and about how thrilled and proud our beloved parents (z”l) would have been.”
“My time spent at CY, in Israel and with my sister will be long remembered as one of the richest adventures of my life,” Natalie sums it up. “Studying together at the CY is a great opportunity to deepen family ties and enhance the experience. We’re already thinking about when we can do it again.”
Nancy and Rena Harold grew up in Toronto, and then Detroit, to parents who were very committed Zionists but not synagogue members. Like their mother both studied Social work, a “Jewish” profession, Rena says, because it promotes tikun olam. Nancy’s studies took her to Minneapolis, where she works as a psychiatric social worker in the Emergency Department of a large hospital. At Adath Jeshurun Congregation she found “a home and a place to root my Judaism.” She is a board member and chairs the keruv committee, trying to “bring in” those who feel marginalized or without a place or voice in the community. She is also a long-time member of the adult learning committee and actively involved in a variety of educational programs.
Rena, the younger sister, studied social work and psychology at the University of Michigan and is now professor and associate director of Michigan State University’s school of social work. She lives in Ann Arbor, where she is active in the Reform Temple Beth Emeth. Both have studied in the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School Program.
Nancy and Rena had been to Israel many times before, three times together; Rena’s partner, Linda Loewenstein, joined them this summer. The sisters found learning together in Israel “an incredible experience, the natural outgrowth of the values and Zionist ideals of our parents and grandparents, as well as the continuation of our personal learning journeys.” Studying at the Conservative Yeshiva and walking the streets of Jerusalem together made them feel “increasingly at home in the land we have always considered our homeland.”
Rena Defez and Esther Weiss grew up in Chicago, and each has devoted her life to education. Rena, the older sister, taught art in the Denver public schools. She started teaching religious school (4th grade) at a large Reform synagogue when she retired, to keep busy and maintain her skills. But the result far exceeded those modest goals; she discovered “a passion for Jewish learning and teaching and a desire to transmit the beauty of our Jewish heritage to the next generation.”
Esther went to an Orthodox day school for 8th grade and high school, and attended the Spertus Institute, in addition to earning a B.A. in English, which enabled her to go directly into Jewish education. As Education Director at Moriah Congregation in Chicago for the last 18 years, she is in charge of its family and adult education programs. She has been very active in educational programs of the Conservative Movement in the Chicago area over the years and in CAJE. She is now a co-president of the Jewish Educator’s Assembly’s Midwest region.
Esther says that the sisters “have always shared – our possessions, our thoughts and our deepest feelings.” Three weeks of study at the Conservative Yeshiva offered them “the possibility of sharing our spiritual thoughts and feelings as well, via Torah study in Jerusalem together.” They decided to do it. “What we imagined came true,” she says. “We were blessed with the opportunity of sharing at an even deeper level than ever before in our lives. The excellence of the instruction, the honesty, integrity and caring that abounded from each of our amazing teachers, and the general ambience of Torah learning and derech eretz that pervades the CY environment made each day precious and special.”
While both have been to Israel a number of times (Esther did her junior year of college at Hebrew University), they found living and learning together an important part of the experience. Rena notes that she is “continually confronted with the disconnect our Jewish children display between their lives in America and the land of Israel” and the CY experience renewed their enthusiasm for Israel and their desire to transmit this feeling to their students. “We’re grateful for the Yeshiva experience and committed to continuing chevruta study together and in our respective communities in the States,” Esther sums it up. “It was doubly unforgettable because I came with my sister.”