Drisha opened its doors in September 1979. Brochures had been distributed listing classes from morning till evening, Monday through Thursday. Women could come to a single class or could come to learn full-time. We were to hold classes in a rented space in a synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan—in the upper story, which had been used for nothing but storage for years. A friend put up two partitions, creating two classrooms and an office between them, complete with a rusty sink and a ketchup-colored rotary phone. There was no office staff. The elevator, old and small and creaky, went up to the fifth floor. We were in the sixth floor, accessible only by stairs.
That first September morning, I sat in the sixth-floor classroom closer to the stairs and waited for my students. And waited. Nobody came. In fact, nobody came that day at all. The next day, another class, same time—9:30 a.m. Again I waited in an empty room for class to start. At 9:30, nobody. About ten minutes later, I heard the elevator creaking and the sound of the elevator door opening on the fifth floor. Someone was walking up the stairs. She opened the door and said, “I’m looking for Drisha.” “You are Drisha,” I said. And soon a second student joined my class, Tuesday morning Humash. The three of us, joined by many others, learned together for the next four years, and that class has continued through today.
Many of the other classes never materialized that first year. But enough classes did, and Drisha was on its way. We didn’t have any students learning full-time that first year, but the brochure and its promise stuck in my mind. Five years later, having built our base of learning, Drisha launched the first-ever kollel for women, a yearlong program.
A Turning Point
Classes at Drisha met in the fall and spring and aligned with the college schedule. Many of our students came from Barnard, the women’s college a couple of miles uptown; some of them had learned in Israel for a year, which was far less common at that time. In 1982, we decided to offer a program in the summer: a five-week, full-time course of study. Mornings were dedicated to Talmud study—a core part of Drisha’s program from its inception, given its importance in the traditional curriculum and the lack of other opportunities for women to pursue Talmud study—and afternoons to other text-focused classes. All of these courses, like all Drisha classes, included a robust hevruta period.
We had no idea whether there would be interest in such a program. To my amazement, sixteen women—two of them seniors in high school—came to learn. And what a group it was! Incredibly bright, with a deep love of learning, and unbounded commitment. I remember thinkingthat we must create more opportunities for the sake of these women and for the sake of the Jewish people as a whole.
Stairway to Heaven
I hate elevators, especially creaky ones in empty buildings. So I would take the stairs in the empty synagogue building up to Drisha’s classrooms. One day in September 1984, I began my daily ascent. As I climbed the stairs, I heard voices. They became louder and louder. I arrived at Drisha’s space, by now supplemented by a dark room on the fifth floor, painted yellow and with bars on the windows. I opened the door, and I saw eight women learning in hevruta. Of course, I knew they would be there. We had just inaugurated the Fellowship Program, a yearlong, fully stipended kollel for women. But hearing these women’s voices, loudly learning Torah, energetically engaged in learning, caught me by surprise nonetheless. I had never heard such a sound. I felt that something new was unfolding in the world, and that Drisha had made this possible.
That program would continue for thirty years, augmented a few years later by the Scholars Circle, a three-year fellowship program for women wanting to become experts in Talmud and halakhah. The halakhah component was organized by the topics classically studied in semikhah programs: shabbat, nidah, and kashrut.
This program was one of Drisha’s most impactful contributions. Its graduates took and continue to hold leadership roles in schools and institutions of higher learning in the United States and Israel. The program itself spurred the launching of several advanced learning programs for women in Israel and the United States. The ascent up the staircase that morning to the voices of Torah study heralded a new era for women’s Torah learning. It will forever remain in my mind.
Do It for Their Sisters
In 1988, we decided to open a summer learning program for high school girls. We recruited five faculty members, developed the curriculum, arranged housing, and looked forward to this innovative program. There was only one problem—only four girls applied.
I remember speaking to my wife and saying, “Even for Drisha, five faculty and all this investment for four students is extreme. Should we be doing this?” She said, “You’re not doing this for these four girls. You’re doing it for their little sisters. They need to grow up knowing that there is a place where they can learn Torah.” We ran the program.
This past summer, the high school program, now named in memory of Scholars Circle alumna and former director of the program Dr. Beth Samuels, accepted its 500th student. It draws 26 girls each summer from across North America and Israel and welcomes them into an immersive, 24/7 program of learning. The program has become more complex and multifaceted, but at its core it has a single, simple message: It’s your Torah. The high school program has been life-changing for many young women on the cusp of adulthood: For the first time, they realize that Torah learning can be an integral part of their lives.
Men Can Learn, Too
Drisha’s founding mission was to offer women access to serious Torah learning, especially Talmud study, at a time when there were almost no places in the world in which women could learn Talmud at all and very few places where women could learn on a serious level and gain direct access to the text. Over the course of time, Drisha has built on that mission through the programs I described here, and others. But it also became clear that Drisha had a contribution to make in the world of Torah study in general. Our approach to learning—combining rigor, honesty, openness, and religious seriousness—seemed more and more to be something that was important for the entire community. And so Drisha began gradually to open its offerings to men, beginning with part-time classes and culminating in the coed summer kollels for young adults that Drisha launched first in New York and then, in addition, in Israel, over the last decade. At this time, all of Drisha’s programs, both in the United States and in Israel, serve both women and men, with the exception of the high school program and Drisha’s new yeshiva (see Devora Steinmetz’s article on page __). The high school program, with its mission of empowering young girls, will remain for girls only.
The Nature of Talmud Torah
Over the course of the past decade, as well, Drisha’s programs have incorporated an emphasis on tefillah. All of Drisha’s full-time programs now include thrice-daily tefillah. Participants lead and participate in minyanim or prayer groups that reflect their best understanding of how they ought to daven, and often our programs include more than one choice of minyan. In addition, participants in our full-time programs engage in hakhanah l’tefillah workshops, helping prepare for davening and introducing people to a variety of modalities and ideas that can enhance their engagement in tefillah. Beginning and ending the day with prayer serves to frame our study as a religious activity, bringing into the beit midrash all of the responsibility and service that a religious activity demands. The choice of minyanim allows for participants to enter into the beit midrash without having to park their commitments at the door or pretend to be someone other than themselves. This is part of creating a beit midrash in which the learning is characterized by honesty, commitment, and full engagement of the whole person.
Additionally, Drisha has begun to incorporate an emphasis on the intersection of Torah learning and critical communal issues. We believe both that the study of Torah can help inform and direct us to appropriate responses to issues confronting our communities and that a full awareness of the reality of life and its hardships enables us to understand Torah in a deeper way.
A Personal Note
Much of my own teaching, especially over the course of the past twenty years, has taken place in our weekly adult education classes. Drisha has given me the opportunity, together with my students, to develop an approach to the study of Tanakh. I have been told by many of my students, who number many thousands, that these classes have had a powerful impact on their lives. I believe that the study of Torah, if accomplished with honesty, rigor, and commitment, and without agendas, can have a transformational effect. It allows us to see ourselves and our world with an additional perspective and is a call to action.
I see Drisha in a similar way. Drisha reflects upon the world and attempts to make it a better place. It creates programs that are new, with the hope that others will pick up the gauntlet. It begins programs and, if they become no longer necessary because others have picked them up or they are not central to Drisha’s mission, moves on to other challenges. It has been, and continues to be, an agent for change. We will continue to challenge the status quo—as long as there is that one person who says, “I’m looking for Drisha.”
Rabbi David Silber is the founder of Drisha, where he has taught since its inception.He received the Covenant award in 2000.He is the author of Go Forth and Learn, a commentary on the Haggadah in English and Hebrew, and For Such a Time as This, a commentary on Megillat Esther in Hebrew. His primary area of expertise is biblical narrative.
Our approach to learning—combining rigor, honesty, openness, and religious seriousness—seemed more and more to be something that was important for the entire community.
Drisha has begun to incorporate an emphasis on the intersection of Torah learning and critical communal issues.
Drisha has been, and continues to be, an agent for change.