Rivka Segal is the program director at the Seymour J. Abrams Jerusalem World Center (the OU Israel Center), which offers fifty shiurim weekly, runs several tiyulim each month and organizes special courses and events that attract more than a thousand people weekly. Prior to serving in this position, she taught at various seminaries in Israel. Before she made aliyah, she was director of the Women’s Institute of Torah (WIT) in Baltimore and taught at various Jewish high schools.
As told to Rachel Wizenfeld
Chinuch was always my passion. As a young child, I dreamed of being a teacher.
And yet, for a long time, I felt guilty about teaching while raising my family. It’s such a privilege to devote oneself solely to raising one’s children. It took me time to realize that I needed to work to be a good mother. I would not have been happy being an at-home mom and neither would my children.
Everyone has his or her own mission. You follow the dots that God has given you and you go with it. There are women who derive immense satisfaction from working full time, and there are women who thrive as stay-at-home moms. We all have to respect each other’s choices. That ability to value everyone’s unique role comes from learning Torah.
While I didn’t start working full-time until my kids were older, I still felt as if I was being squeezed from all sides when I was juggling my part-time positions. Women need a supportive environment to balance everything, whether it’s support from one’s parents, husband or friends. Without support, one can easily be stretched too thin.
Women whose jobs revolve around the community often have it harder. As do their children. It’s well known that the children of rabbis, rebbetzins or others heavily involved in communal work often have to compete for their parents’ time and attention. My husband and I are careful about making special family time. On Friday nights, we have lots of company—we live in a neighborhood in Jerusalem that’s full of singles—but for Shabbat lunch, it’s just the family.
On the other hand, there are some real benefits to being involved in communal work. My children have become very close to many of my students; in fact, some of the ba’alei teshuvah who frequent our home have become members of the family.
I find that the real challenge with adult education is the constant pressure of preparation. I come home at 5:00 or 6:00 pm, spend some time with my family and the rest of the night I’m preparing a shiur. I teach a weekly Tehillim shiur at the OU Israel Center and a weekly parashah shiur in Nachlaot. I never feel like I prepared enough. It’s a good pressure, but it’s constant. It’s also harder to recycle content nowadays because everything is available online.
Adult education is, however, only a piece of what I do. I serve as the director of the OU Israel Center, and my day centers around planning and executing our many varied and multi-faceted programs. We offer between forty and forty-five shiurim weekly, delivered by cutting-edge teachers like Shira Smiles and Rebbetzin Yemima Mizrachi. We’re also expanding to offer classes like art, dance, health, history, cooking, financial management and more. We just started an all-women’s choir and are planning an art exhibit for local artists to display and sell their work. The shuls in Israel do not serve as a focal point for the community, as they do in the States. The OU Israel Center steps in to fill the void. Our mission is to create a diverse array of programs to enhance the lives of English-speakers in Yerushalayim and beyond.
The number-one necessity for all women in leadership roles is a true friend. You don’t need many friends—most women in these positions don’t have time for too many friends—but a good friend will tell you if you’re working too hard, or if you’re doing something wrong. When I lived in Baltimore, I had one friend who would help me re-assess my priorities every once in a while. I called her my “yetzer tov.”
It’s also important to connect with other women occupying similar roles. Every few weeks I meet with several women in communal leadership positions just to network and brainstorm.
Is it harder for women to get a top administrative position in Jewish communal life than it is for men? For sure. In some communities there’s the old boys’ network where they just don’t let women in; but even the girls’ schools in certain communities would rather choose a male director or principal because their perception is that men perform better in such a role.
It’s hard to be a woman in a leadership position in the Jewish world. But women who have the drive and energy and want to use their talents to make an impact on the broader community have to do so or they’ll feel frustrated.
At the same time, we need to recognize that all women are leaders regardless of their professional roles. Leaders are people who influence other people’s lives. Women don’t even understand the impact they have on others. A woman thinks that because she’s not a renowned public speaker or the president of an organization she has little impact, but that’s completely untrue. When people reflect back on who had the most influence on their lives, the answer usually is their mother.
Rachel Wizenfeld is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor and is a frequent contributor to Jewish Action.