Shira Smiles has taught Torah to women worldwide for three decades. Known for her sophisticated shiurim, she blends intellectual rigor with a down-to-earth presentation. She currently teaches at Darchei Bina, a women’s seminary for gap-year students in Jerusalem, and gives several parashah classes and chumash chaburahs weekly, many of which are streamed over the Internet and viewed across the globe.
As told to Rachel Wizenfeld
We live in an age where women are more learned than ever before. Women want to be challenged to think, and they appreciate the intellectual rigor of an in-depth shiur. Yet challenging the mind without engaging the heart is too limiting. People are searching for meaning. I try, with my shiurim, to provide a message for life, to nurture the soul as well as the mind.
I love teaching. But I did not start teaching adults until my husband encouraged me to do so. Not every husband would encourage his wife to pursue such a path. Some men might be intimidated, but my husband embraced it.
The work is intense. Each parashah shiur I give requires ten hours of work, which entails researching and compiling a source sheet. (I can’t even repeat a shiur because they’re all available online!) Every week I need to start from scratch. My eighteen-year-old daughter helps out with the research.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, I was living in Los Angeles and I recall attending the fiftieth birthday party of one of my students. She invited me and two Chabad rebbetzins—she viewed us as her spiritual mentors. At one point, the woman turned to us and asked if each of us had our own mentor. Without a moment’s hesitation, the Chabad women said their mentor was the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Then she asked me. I said, “I don’t know. I don’t have one.”
Later on, it hit me: infertility was my spiritual mentor. Infertility forced me to examine my relationship with God—where I’m coming from, where I’m headed, what Yiddishkeit is all about. Going through a challenge makes one a different person. It had spurred me to look into the sources and see what Jewish thinkers over the centuries had to say about struggle.
I found chizuk in the Chassidic sefarim and, in particular, in the Netivot Shalom. I felt siyata d’Shmaya throughout my entire journey through infertility.
While I enjoy teaching immensely, I see my work centering more and more around relationships. In today’s day and age, people need mentoring more than anything else. I maintain close relationships with many of my former students as well as with women in the community. Maintaining a connection is a commitment. Just answering e-mails and phone calls takes an inordinate amount of time. But I always remind myself of what Rabbi Moshe Feinstein said: “You have to give ma’aser of your time, not just of your money.” We’re in this world to be involved in tzarchei tzibbur, the needs of the klal.
In Israel, where I currently live, the role of the rav and rebbetzin is defined very differently than in America. The rav and rebbetzin in the States tend to be more involved in the lives of their congregants. This is not the case in Israel. Here, many women seek out a teacher from whom they can receive guidance. Women have approached me about all kinds of personal issues, ranging from family planning and divorce to more contemporary challenges such as male addiction to Internet pornography. These are sensitive issues that women understandably feel more comfortable discussing with another woman rather than with a rav. One thing is certain: I don’t have all the answers. I’m constantly saying, “Lishuatcha kiviti Hashem, I long for Your salvation, Hashem.” I’m also constantly seeking advice from others. I once said to Rebbetzin Kalmanovitch, “All these people are coming to me [with their questions and problems] and I don’t feel equipped to advise them.” She said, “Tell them: you daven and I daven.”
I frequently refer women to rabbanim and therapists. They say a teacher’s job is like a Hatzalah worker: you give them first aid and decide if they need more care.
But the home always has to be first. We’ve really cut back on hosting Shabbat meals. And my preference for e-mail gives me more time to devote to family life. I often get up at 2:00 in the morning so I can answer e-mails on my own time.
For women, the priority has to be family, period. This is the reality. Women between the ages of twenty and fifty are very busy with familial obligations. Part of this challenge is that they don’t have the opportunity to develop themselves the same way as men do. Thus, it’s no surprise that their learning is curtailed and their teaching isn’t as developed. Of course, one grows tremendously through the process of raising children, but it’s a different kind of growth. Generally women over the age of fifty who have finished raising their children are much more available. And I have a secret to share—one should want a mentor who is over fifty. Older women have more wisdom, more learning and more life experience under their belts.
Students often ask me if they should pursue a career in chinuch. And the truth is, how can I encourage them to go into teaching when they need to support a family and the teaching salaries are significantly lower than other professions? The community needs to recognize that we need more women teachers and we need to pay them accordingly. There’s a huge pay gap between male and female teachers in the day school/yeshivah system. If we as a community are not going to value women leadership, then why should young women go into this field?
Nevertheless, if a young woman is drawn towards teaching, I always say, “Go for it!” There’s such a need and it’s very fulfilling. I feel like I am making a contribution to the Jewish community without needing a title. Hakadosh Baruch Hu put me in this place. It’s avodat hakodesh.
Shira Smiles’ shiurim can be accessed at Naaleh.com and at YUtorah.org.
Rachel Wizenfeld is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor and is a frequent contributor to Jewish Action.