Interview Series Episode 4: Rivky Kaplan
Updated: Oct 12, 2020
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got to where you are today in your learning?
As long as I can remember, I’ve been very lucky that it’s something that always interested me. I was always a bookworm. I never mastered all the games that my brothers and sisters learned how to play on Shobbos, because I was in my pile of books. That was always my thing. As I got older and I met more like-minded women, I was very taken by them and inspired by them.
About 14 years ago was the second Lebonese war. Tzfat came under missile attack, including my own home. My home was damaged and we had to move out to repair the house. At that time I had five kids, and our friends gave us a place to stay in Yerushalayim until things settled down. The following summer, I saw a listing for an advanced women's Torah learning opportunity. It was exactly what I was looking for; engaging in the text, a lot of chavruta learning, following halacha in its evolvement from Torah shebichtav until where we are today. At that time I was pregnant with my sixth child and the program was located in Yerushalayim. And I thought, “how can I do it?” Then I said, “If for a war, I was able to pack up all my kids and move down to Yerushalayim, I can do it for this too.”
My husband came on board, my friend’s house was still available and we actually moved down to Yersuhalayim for a month and I was able to engage in Torah learning in a way that I hadn’t for a really long time. I still remember getting into the elevator in the morning, with my backpack on, with a look of glee on my face. I remember sitting in the Bet Midrash and seeing women there with their babies crawling on the floor. They were sitting with all the primary texts piled up in front of them; the Gemara, the Mishna, the Shulchan Aruch. They would sit for hours and hours and, in between, they would nurse their babies or grab a cup of coffee. And finally, after a couple days, I asked them “What are you ladies studying?” And it turns out that it was the culmination of a two and a half year course where they had engaged in learning the halachos of Taharat Hamishpacha and they were about to take their oral exam. And here they were, spending hours and hours preparing for it. It planted a seed, and I said “I’m doing that one day. I’m giving myself the gift of engaging in a mitzva that is so integral to a Jewish woman’s life, but not by reading an essay or listening to a podcast, but by going back to the sources.”
With a lot of support and guidance, I came to a point where for the first time in my life I became deeply immersed in taking ownership of what it means to do a mitzva. And I had this sense of expansion once I started understanding the rhyme and the rhythm behind so much of what we’re doing.
Do you feel like there was something missing from your education before this or did you get there and realize that you didn’t even know what you were missing?
A little bit of both. I didn’t realize to what extent. There have definitely been times in my life when I looked into a topic and followed it all the way through and really had that “Aha” moment. And I would look at the clock and realize it was three in the morning and didn’t even realize the time passed because the pieces were falling into place and I found the perfect source or finally figured out what something meant. So I definitely had teasers.
I’ve been involved in teaching adults almost primarily since I moved to Tzfat, which was a big jump because before that I was teaching preschool. I teach in the various seminaries and I teach adult women. I’ve always had the luxury of teaching my own curriculum. So if something bothered me or something interested me, I would prepare a class on it. And then I would have to really figure it out in a way that would be presentable to my audience. I’m also a little bit cynical. So when I prepare for a class, I’ll always have that cynical voice that questions everything and wants to see a source. I’ve learned to channel that voice in my favor because it pushed me to not be satisfied with superficial, fluffy answers. The flipside of that is that sometimes you can overwhelm your students. My students will sometimes ask a yes or no question, not expecting me to give them the entire history. I always tell my students, the hardest thing is to decide what not to include on a handout, not what to include.
So you said that you switched from teaching preschool to teaching adults. Was that just because the opportunity fell in your lap or was it a more conscious decision?
I think it was both. I moved to Israel right after I got married. I had some Hebrew, just from what I picked up going to a frum school. So I knew I needed to do something where I could speak in English until I learned Hebrew. So what was available were the seminaries that were for girls coming from chutz laretz.
I loved preschool and I really connected to my students and there’s something beautiful about the relationships I built then. It used parts of my brain that were important and I use them a lot as a mother. But there were parts of my brain that were turning into a vegetable. They just weren't stimulated.
I remember at one point when I was a madricha at Mayanot, I went once to visit the Kotel and I bumped into Rivky Slonim who I always admired from a distance for her ability to always dig beneath the surface. She asked me what I was doing next year. I told her I would be going back to Stamford to teach in the preschool there, but that I also felt that I needed to be intellectually stimulated. I told her “I need to do something with my brain!” And I’ll never forget what she said to me. “ Go and open up a Rashi sicha!” I wasn’t in fifth or sixth grade, I was past high school and seminary and I don’t know how I never managed to learn a Rashi sicha yet. The next day at Mayanot, they asked me to teach Ulpan and I decided to teach a Hebrew Rashi sicha. That was a real eye opener for me. Even though I loved my schooling and had no complaints about it, somehow, I didn’t realize the depth that Chassidus had until that moment. So I looked up the footnotes, many of which referred to the Mishna, Gemara and rishonim. And that became my new obsession. When I came back to Stamford, I continued learning my Rashi sichos. And shortly after, I ended up getting married and moving to Tzfat. And that’s what I did for years and years in seminary.
I find Rashi sichos amazing on so many levels. First of all, the Rebbe started saying Rashi sichos in honor of his mother. And to me, that’s one of so many shoutouts the Rebbe gives to the academic capabilities of women. Rashi sichos are not always the simplest. They're very layered, there's a lot of back and forth and a lot of nuances and references to various parts of Mishna and Gemara. When you do something in memory of someone else, it’s because you know it’s meaningful to the other person. I really feel that the Rebbe starting Rashi sichos in dedication to Rebbetzin Chana means that it was meaningful to Rebbetzin Chana. And the Rebbe is also saying that this is the academic level that women should be learning at.
To this day, I teach Rashi sichos regularly. I have a group of women here in Tzfat going on our fourteenth year. Week after week, we plow through Rashi sichos and it’s been amazing. I call them my fellow travelers because we’ve sort of evolved together.
Were there any other female teachers or mentors you had that you felt were impactful?
This is going to sound cliche, but certainly the Rebbe’s vision impacted me. I was a child at the time so what did I really know about what the Rebbe’s vision was? I saw it in the people around me.
I think the first person that impacted me and gave me a love and a thirst for Torah was my father. When I think about it, it wasn’t because my father had any idea what the word feminist means. He grew up with mostly brothers and his sister was born only after he was out of the house. But he’s a chossid. And so when us girls started coming along, he treated us through the eyes of the Rebbe. When he shared at the Shobbos table, he always addressed us and challenged us. We couldn’t get away with having nothing to say. To this day, when I go home to visit my parents, I know I need to come prepared. I know that if I post a Zoom class, my father will be listening and he’ll have questions and words of encouragement. I really think that he was channeling the Rebbe’s belief in what women can and should be doing. When my brothers would say things like “Girls can’t learn Gemara”, my father sat us down and learned Gemara with us. Not because he was trying to promote some feminst agenda. It was his manifestation of what he saw the Rebbe believed we were capable of doing and his belief in that continues to drive us. There’s no question that my mother’s quiet but absolute support in that was really what made that possible.
I recently was at home spending some time with my parents and I also had a test I had to take. So jetlag hit and I decided at 12:00 one night that I would start studying. My father came down the stairs at three or four in the morning to get something and he saw me at the table surrounded by my books. I don’t think I could have given him a bigger gift than that. But I don’t think he realized that he really gave me that gift. The fact that I knew that I could apply myself in that way was something that he gave us. So certainly my father is a very big influence.
My Bubby Deren was also a woman ahead of her times. She also happened to be my principal. I remember when I was in 11th grade and she was my Chumash teacher, she was teaching us about Karbanos. Up until that point, we never learned about karbanos. We always skipped over that part in Chumash and if we learned it, it was really just to get through it. But I'll never forget her enthusiasm and her ownership of the material. It wasn’t a fascinating, dramatic story that anyone could make fun. She took karbanos and for a group of obnoxious 11th graders, she made it come alive. I remember that feeling of pride. “This is my Bubby! And look what she does with such difficult passages in Torah.”
She was a real chossid so her approach to Torah learning was very much driven by the Rebbe’s vision. She did it in such a feminine manner. She had her pearl necklace and Chanel perfume and her classic black dress. And she was regal but did not compromise. When you met her, there was way more than what you saw. I also remember that she had in her house a full set of Nechama Leibowitz chumashim and a full set of R’ Shamshon Rafael Hirsh chumashim. We spent a lot of time in her house growing up and I lived at her house when I was in high school. The message that gave me is that when you are anchored in your identity, it's ok to also see what others are saying in Torah. It expands your appreciation of what a layered and complex nation we are. It was only later that I realized that it was quite uncommon for a Chabad home to have a full set of Nechama Liebowitz’s chumashim or R’ Shamshon Rafael Hirsh chumashim. But she was comfortable with that. It didn’t have to be only one way.
Over the years, hundreds of girls have gone through your classroom and been impacted by your classes. What is the primary thing you try to give over to your students? And what do you think young women at this transitional stage of their life really need in their education?
Many people have consulted with me over the years and asked me what makes a good teacher. I think the number one rule, and this is something I really live with, is that you need to love what you’re teaching. I'll choose to teach a subject that I love, that excites me, that I can get goosebumps reading. And people will ask me, “You've taught this so many times, how are you still excited about it?” And it's because at every point in your life when you read something from Torah, which is eternal and infinite, you’ll see something different. I can literally teach something the sixteenth time and wonder “How come I never noticed those words?” Of course I noticed the words, but they never resonated as deeply because I wasn't where I am today. Not everyone has that luxury of picking and teaching what they want to teach. For me, I would move away from certain subjects when I felt they weren’t giving me as much energy or I wasn't able to invest as much energy in it.
You also need to make it contemporary and I think that's when it starts to resonate. When you look at something the Rebbe said, it may have been thirty or fourty years ago, but when you look at the message, sometimes it is even more relevant today than it was then. It's really mind blowing. You need to be able to get across that passion and that relevance. Even if at times you overwhelm your students, I think it’s ok because you're also giving them a glimpse into the depth of where they can go.
One more thing I try to give over to my students is ownership. Don’t tell me you didn’t learn this or that your school didn’t teach you that. That doesn’t explain where you're going. You are going to decide where you’re going. I'm not saying everyone is coming with equal skills but I meet girls when they’re eighteen, nineteen years old or older. They're adults and I treat them like adults. It's time to jump into the driver seat. You want to have a relationship with the Aibishter, you want to have a relationship with the Aibishter’s Torah, you need to own this. There are so many opportunities out there. Everys single text out there is available in English. With Sefaria, you don't even need books anymore. So I really try to give over to the girls passion, relevance and ownership.
What has been your experience with introducing more text-based learning to your students?
Mixed. I’m not proud to say that sometimes I find myself watering things down because I have to ask myself: what’s my goal? Is my goal to engage the girls in the hope that they’ll take something away from this? Or is my goal to expose them to five different sources and the way in which it evolved? It's a difficult balance and sometimes I walk out of class feeling frustrated. Do they even care? Maybe it's not relevant anymore. There are definitely moments when I just feel done. And then the Aibishter will make sure I know that this stuff is still important; that people need to see that Torah is accessible and relevant.
Sometimes what I'll do in my classes is bring in a bunch of books - people don't know what books look like anymore. I'll take a pasuk and go through how it evolves and I'll show them “That's this book.” I’ll show them a timeline and where the book fits into the timeline of Jewish history. I call it my show and tell.
Many students I’ve encountered ask: ‘Why is text-based learning necessary? I can access any information I want at the tip of my fingers. Why do I need to know how to learn it myself?’ What would you answer to that?
I think that like with everything, when we get a glimpse at the behind-the-scenes of what's going on, it gives us a greater connection and a greater appreciation of how we got to where we are.
So for example, I'm deeply involved in learning the halachos of Taharat Hamishpacha. Many people just say “Tell me yes, tell me no, or tell me call a rav.” But life gets in the way and you have to ask yourself, how committed am I to doing things in a truly lichatchila manner?
We do both naaseh and nishma. The naaseh works, but only up to a certain point. It’s really the nishma that will take us to the next level. We got two crowns at Matan Torah because the big deal is not just naaseh. You can’t continue to do the naaseh with authenticity and with ownership and you can't transmit it if it's just coming from a place of doing it because you're supposed to. If you want to transmit it and you want it to be yours, you need to have the nishma. Truth be told, anything that’s worth owning is going to take work. This is no exception.
There’s a beautiful story I wanted to share that my aunt, Vivi Deren shared with me.. She’s also been a huge role model for me throughout my life. It was in the early 80’s that she and her husband, Rabbi Yisroel Deren, came in from Springfield with a large group of children to visit 770. It was the 20th of Shevat. The Rebbe made an impromptu rally for the kids that came in. Rabbi J.J. Hecht wasn't there so my uncle was asked to translate. In the second sicha, the Rebbe talks about how Tzivos Hashem had just been launched and the role of a soldier in Hashem’s army. He said, “How do we know who is a boy in Hashem’s army? Tzitzis and yarmulke. And how do we know who is a girl in Hashem's army?” And everyone thought he would say the obvious, that she dresses tznius. But instead the Rebbe said “When she's asked, ‘How do you know who created the world?’ and she’s able to quote pesukim in Torah, not just because she memorized them but because she understands them and she owns them.” It was so interesting. The Rebbe said that this is the defining feature of how you know she’s a soldier in Hashem’s army. When my uncle was translating this, the Rebbe called over Rabbi Groner and told him to add that you can also tell because she's dressed in a tznius manner.
So I'm going to take a poetic license on this. Obviously the rebbe meant the basic meaning, but to me, this means: Sharing her Torah learning needs to be part of her identity. But how? It needs to be in a modest manner. Meaning our Torah learning doesn't need to be replicating what goes on in a Beit Midrash in a boys’ yeshiva, but should be done in a tznius manner. Not that she should be hiding in her tent, but that even when she goes out, it needs to be done in a way of “kol kevudah bas melech pnima”. And that will look different for everyone.
So that really stayed with me; that to the Rebbe, that's what a Jewish girl was. And of course, years later my Bubby passed away on the 2oth of Shevat and I felt that she really personified that message.
Is there any other message you have to share with women about their Torah learning?
Today is actually the third of Sivan which is three days before Matan Torah. One of the instructions that Hashem told Moshe to give to men and women is that couples should refrain from intimacy three days prior to matan Torah. Why? Rashi says that there's a form of impurity a woman can experience up to three days post intimacy and if she experiences that form of impurity, it invalidates her from being at Har Sinai. So if she would be intimate the day before and the next morning she would experience this impurity, she couldn’t attend Matan Torah. So Hashem is telling us, “I need you to refrain because it is critical to me that each and every Jewish woman physically be present to receive the Torah. It's not enough for you to hear about it from someone else. It's not enough for you to read about it. I need you to be present. When this monumental occasion happens in our relationship, you need to have a first hand experience. You need to be an eye witness.”
I think the message for us in 2020 is that as Jewish women, we need to have a present, first-hand relationship with the Torah. How does that look? I don’t think it’s a one size fits all. I think that's a question we really have to ask ourselves. Am I present in my relationship with the most intimate part of Hashem, which is the Torah? For some people that means it's time to open up the text and that’s your firsthand experience. For some people it means going to a class and interacting, asking questions and engaging with what the teacher is saying as opposed to it being a passive experience. For some people that might mean composing a song or writing poetry about something they’re learning. The key word is presence. This is the time to ask ourselves “Am I present?