This past January, the OU Women’s Initiative (WI) celebrated the culmination of its first two-year Nach Yomi cycle, with community Nach Shabbat events throughout the United States and siyumim in both the US and in Israel. But participants did not pause for long. As soon as they finished exploring the last perek of Divrei Hayamim, they began again—with new passion and inspiration.
This kind of Torah engagement among women was unimaginable “back in my day. Jewish life has so much more to offer us now,” reflects Nechama Wolfson from Lawrence, New York. She has dedicated the second Torat Imecha Nach Yomi cycle, now underway, in honor of her mother, grandmothers and a cherished aunt. “I am proud to be a part of this initiative that links Torah study to their memory,” she says.
Mrs. Wolfson was the driving force behind the creation of the Shalom Task Force, which combats and prevents domestic violence in the Jewish community. She and her late husband Zev Wolfson founded Shlavim, which addresses the socio-economic challenges facing Israel’s religious community.
With the goal of completing the 742 chapters of Nevi’im and Ketuvim in two years, the Torat Imecha Nach Yomi program offers a daily podcast covering a chapter a day. An impressive array of women scholars delivers the shiurim, gearing them toward learners of all levels. With 6,500 subscribers and between 1,000 and 1,200 women logging in from twenty-eight countries around the world, the program has become wildly popular since it first launched in 2020. In fact, its podcast episodes consistently fill seven out of the top-ten most-played slots on the OU Torah website.
“The program is revolutionary,” says Mrs. Wolfson. “It has really changed the face of Torah education for women.”
“These stunning numbers have far exceeded our modest expectation of 300 subscribers,” says Rebbetzin Dr. Adina Shmidman, the WI’s founding director, who holds a master’s degree in Jewish education from the Azrieli Graduate Institute of Yeshiva University, a second master’s in school psychology from Queens College, and a PhD in educational psychology from the CUNY Graduate Center.
Seizing on the momentum that accompanied the start of the Daf Yomi cycle, which began the same week, Torat Imecha launched with the opening perek of Sefer Yehoshua on January 9, 2020. Women responded, eager to immerse themselves in the learning. This new cycle of Nach will be broken into four parts—Nevi’im Rishonim, Nevi’im Acharonim, Tehillim, and then the rest of Ketuvim—each named for one of the wonderful women who shaped Nechama Wolfson’s life. Growing up in the then-small San Francisco Bay Area Jewish community, Mrs. Wolfson lived far from her extended family. Visits with her grandmothers, “both warm, wonderful individuals who modeled the values of authenticity, integrity and honesty,” hold a special place in her recollections. So, too, the companionship of her aunt, as well as the kindness and wisdom of her mother, a beloved Jewish educator who taught Sunday/Hebrew school for fifty years.
Resonance and Relevance
Torat Imecha Nach Yomi has attracted a broad audience and resonates, both among learners and educators, in meaningful, multilayered ways.
Participants in the program range from middle schoolers to grandmothers and come from across the Orthodox spectrum. Some women listen on their commute to work; others, with their daughters while driving them to school. Two women who live in the same apartment building, one in her late seventies and the other in her nineties, have become chavrutas, listening to the podcast together. The youngest participant, eleven-year-old Ayelet Pollak, attended the Nach Yomi siyum held in Lawrence, New York. A sixth grader at Shulamith School for Girls in New York’s Five Towns, she decided to take on Nach Yomi because her “teacher and her grandmother were doing it.” Having completed the first cycle, spending time listening to the podcast each day after school, Ayelet now plans on “doing it all over again.”
One of the greatest draws of the program and a significant factor in its broad success is the cadre of different female scholars—among them Rachel Besser from Passaic, New Jersey, Dr. Esther Shkop from Chicago, Illinois, and Michal Horowitz, from Woodmere, New York—who deliver the daily shiurim, each educator focused on a specific book. The well-respected, international scholar Rabbanit Shani Taragin provides a video introduction before the start of every new sefer. These scholars have the unique opportunity to teach material that most participants have had little experience with.
Rebbetzin Shmidman, who serves as rebbetzin of The Lower Merion Synagogue in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, points out that even among highly Jewishly educated women, few have had exposure to the entire canon of Nach, and surely not in the perek-by-perek style of Torat Imecha. Not all the sefarim “make it into yeshivah or day school curricula when there’s so much else to teach, and when they do, rarely are students given an inside look at the text. We provide them with the chance to learn all of it and to find resonance in it.”
Some participants found, for example, the sefer of Iyov particularly relevant in today’s world, leaving them to wonder, “Why haven’t we studied this in depth before?”
Sarah Felsen, Nechama Wolfson’s daughter, took strength from Professor Smadar Rosensweig’s teaching of Iyov. “It perfectly encapsulated for me how bad things can happen to good people, and how we can learn from ancient examples of coping and survival.”
“Nach offers ready responses to cataclysmic events, as well as comforting messages of Hashem’s presence in the world,” says Rebbetzin Shmidman. Descriptions of the Churban Habayit, for example, are filled with language related to pain, struggle, loss and resilience.
Torat Imecha strives to make Nach relatable and tangible. Educators teach in a way that brings it to life, pointing out the unique voices of the nevi’im while adding nuance for a clear understanding of their prophecies and personalities. The different sefarim are positioned along the Jewish historical timeline, and familiar pesukim from the siddur or machzor, for example, are given context.
Though the WI could not have predicted the pandemic, the timing of Torat Imecha’s launch was fortuitous. Nach became a spiritual support for many participants. “Who knew that our new program would provide such comfort and a daily anchor to a large swath of women worldwide who would shortly be facing a giant disruption in their lives?” asked Rebbetzin Shmidman.
Chaiky Guttenberg, who lives with her daughter Suri Norowitz in Elizabeth, New Jersey, was steadfast in her Nach learning, especially when they could not go anywhere or see anyone during Covid’s peak. “My mother never missed a day of this opportunity to learn Torah and grow her neshamah,” says Norowitz.
The Power of Completion and Connection
The experience of Nach Yomi has been life-changing for Sarah Felsen, for whom everyday exigencies—raising a family, work, the requirements of the Jewish calendar—had always gotten in the way of regular Torah learning.
“I wanted the experience of completing a sefer.”
“Nach had always resonated with me. Though I was iffy about whether I’d stick with it, I wanted to try.”
Already three weeks behind when she started, she downloaded the missed episodes on Sefer Yehoshua and caught up on a flight home from Israel to Palo Alto. By the time she landed, she was hooked. She went on to complete the cycle this past January.
“When I was studying in Israel years ago,” said Elisheva Schlam from Lawrence, New York, one of the 1,200 women who completed the entire two-year cycle, “I’d visit a friend and always see her mother learning Tanach with the commentaries—before there were podcasts! After she was diagnosed with cancer, she told me: ’I want to finish Tanach before I die.’ “ That left a huge impression on Schlam who has been motivated to study Tanach in a serious way ever since.
Persisting, however, is a huge commitment. “There are no days off; not for Shabbos, not for yom tov,” says Schlam. “So if you don’t want to fall behind, you need to build [Nach Yomi] into your routine or else it won’t happen.”
For Nach Yomi regulars, the bond they feel with the teachers is the key to ongoing commitment. Each educator uses her unique energy to delve into the sacred texts, sharing powerful lessons of emunah and ways to strengthen one’s relationship with Hashem, one podcast at a time.
The result is a spiritual intimacy—among participants, with the educators, and with the text itself. “Nach Yomi has enabled us to capitalize on technology to create a global learning community of thousands of women,” says Rebbetzin Shmidman.
Amy Horowitz, who taught Sefer Yeshayahu, says that “the most incredible aspect of teaching Nach Yomi with Torat Imecha was the feeling of connection—connection with our beloved text and connection with the legions of women who learned together over the course of the past few years.”
To give participants the sense of accomplishment that comes with the completion of a sefer, the WI introduced Zoom siyumim. In addition, these celebrations provided a space for the global Nach Yomi community to meet the speaker face to face, at least virtually.
While planning a Melaveh Malkah siyum in Palo Alto with Professor Rosensweig, Sarah Felsen connected with women in her local community she previously did not know well. “We’ve created a beautiful sisterhood around our study of Nach.”
Ancient Material, New Perspectives
The WI gives women who have never held a mic the chance to use their unique voice to share Torah. The roster of educators for the second cycle of Torat Imecha Nach Yomi includes favorite speakers, but it features new faces and emerging scholars who will add fresh perspectives as well. Returning teachers will explore different texts than they did last time.
A few other changes are in place. For example, the study of Sefer Tehillim will follow the popular division of the book into seven [this time around]. This approach will allow participants to experience the poetry and wisdom of the entire sefer over the course of a week.
Rebbetzin Shmidman expects “the enormous impact that goes well beyond the learning itself” to continue. Notes of gratitude for the program and praise for the instructors prove the point.
“I listened early every morning after davening, with the first cup of coffee, and always felt that no matter what the day brought, I began in a positive way by learning Torah,” says Suzi Tuchman from Oceanside, New York.
Among the letters Rebbetzin Shmidman has received are reports from women who feel their davening is more relevant because they can identify passages from Nach within the siddur. Others describe how it has enhanced their appreciation for the weekly haftarah.
Many participants echo Tzipora Simcha Amsellem of Paris, France. “Nach Yomi has been one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
Like Ingrid Danilewitz of Philadelphia, they “have cherished every minute” of the learning and “cannot imagine a day without it.”
For Mrs. Wolfson, Torat Imecha Nach Yomi reinforces the importance of the lessons she learned growing up. “My mother was a gardener, who often said that gardening is all about planting seeds and love. Nach Yomi does this, inspiring women to grow their thirst for Torah knowledge.”
Merri Ukraincik has written for the Forward, theNew York Jewish Week, Hevria, the Wisdom Daily, Tablet and other publications, including Jewish Action. She is the author of I Live. Send Help, a history of the Joint Distribution Committee.