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The Female Torah-Teaching Genius of Cleveland

A great Torah teacher died in May. I promise you have not heard of her.

by
Rivka Press Schwartz
June 04, 2020
From the project ‘Bat Kama At?’ by Isabelle Rozenbaumas
Rebbetzin Chaya Ausband with her husbandFrom the project ‘Bat Kama At?’ by Isabelle Rozenbaumas
From the project ‘Bat Kama At?’ by Isabelle Rozenbaumas
Rebbetzin Chaya Ausband with her husbandFrom the project ‘Bat Kama At?’ by Isabelle Rozenbaumas

It’s easy, looking at the Haredi world from the outside, to think that its leadership is exclusively male. Men are the public figures, and the great leaders celebrated by mass funerals are men. But within the community there are women who are important leaders. Absent public roles, only their students—and their students’ students, and those who hear the legends—know about these women.

On May 10, we lost one such woman, a scholar and teacher and shaper of lives. Rebbetzin Chaya Ausband, founder and dean of Yavne Teachers College for Women in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, died at the age of 96. Because of the norms of the Haredi community, she never spoke publicly, never published her ideas or teaching methodology; even within the Haredi community, she was little known except to her students.

But her students! Morah, as she was universally known, left decades—generations—of Jewish women, whose lives and whose Jewishness were permanently shaped by the time they spent in her presence. I was her student for only one year, 1995-96. After I left Cleveland in 1998, I did not remain in touch with her. But even as I have left the yeshiva world that she taught in and I learned in, I was carved by that time in her presence and carry its marks in my memories and my actions.

She was born Chaya Bloch in Telz, Lithuania, the daughter of Avraham Yitzchak Bloch, head of the Telz Yeshiva. She survived the Holocaust, the destruction of Telz, and the murder of her parents. After the war, she met and married Eizik Ausband, and they eventually made their way to Cleveland. He became a rosh yeshiva of the transplanted Telz Yeshiva, and she and her sister, Rachel Sorotzkin, rebuilt the Yavne institutions of women’s Torah learning. Sorotzkin oversaw the elementary and high schools, and Ausband led the teachers’ seminary.

The first, last, and most important lesson we learned from Ausband was the enormous value of women’s Torah learning for its own sake—not to make us better wives and mothers, but to better know and understand dvar Hashem, the word of God. In the Haredi tradition, women do not study the Oral Torah, the Mishna and Talmud, but in Yavne Seminary, as it was known, women studied every word of the written Torah. We gloried in the intensive study of the parts of the Bible that others skipped, because they are abstruse (Levitical law about leprosy on houses) or written in Aramaic (Daniel) or non-narrative and theologically challenging (Job) or just not likely to be useful to our putative planned careers as teachers (Song of Songs).

I wish I could convey to you the spirit of Yavne Seminary, the energy, what it felt like. Ultra-Orthodox young women, 18 to 20 years old, glorying, reveling in the study of Torah. “Were it not for your Torah, my delight …” the Psalmist writes. In Yavne, Torah felt like a delight. When I attended the seminary, it was housed in the Taylor Road Synagogue in Cleveland Heights. It consisted in its entirety of two classrooms, a larger one for the first-year students or for the whole school when we were together; a smaller one for the second-year students. We boarded with local families, and there was nowhere to go and nothing to do. This was not Jerusalem, or even New York. Cleveland winters started in October and ended in April. (If you’ve ever lived with lake-effect snow, you know what I mean. Once during my time there, we got 48 inches.) When the school day ended, we hung out together in each other’s host homes. And we learned, we learned, we learned.

The Yavne veterans, who had attended in the 1960s when the seminary had only a handful of students, would tell us about the watered-down education we were getting, the accommodations that had been made to our (invariably lesser) generation of Americans. In their day, over the course of two years, they learned all 24 books of the Tanakh. And the Rashei Yeshiva, the heads of the Telz Yeshiva, would come to farher the students, to quiz them to assess their mastery.

In the yeshiva world of today, that seems unimaginable: rashei yeshiva thinking that quizzing young women on Hebrew Bible is appropriate, or a valuable use of their time. But the yeshivot of Eastern Europe had distinctive characters, and transplanted to northeastern Ohio, the Telz world maintained that distinctiveness. Those distinctions have now been sanded down, as the Haredi yeshiva world is homogenized. The erasure of those specific characters and subcultures is a great loss. But they were alive in Morah, and in the institution she founded and led.

Morah’s teaching was precise, analytical, and exacting. That was true not only of her approach to text (an essay unto itself) but to the Hebrew language. The Yavne schools in Telz taught Judaic studies in Hebrew: not modern Israeli Ivrit, but a grammatically accurate, technically correct Ashkenazi Ivris. She insisted on proper placement of the accent in words, in contrast to the misaccenting common in yeshivish Hebrew. She taught us Shiurei Da’at, the work authored by her martyred father, by having us read it aloud, correcting our pronunciation as we went. My dissertation defense was scarier, but only marginally.

In most of the Haredi world, attending secular college was somewhere between highly discouraged and prohibited. When I planned to attend Yavne, I asked whether Morah would allow me to attend secular college at the same time. She did; I was not the only student with this arrangement. It was a year of whiplash, and challenging acclimation—not because I disliked college, but because I loved it so much. I was in my second year of seminary, I was an avid absorber of the campus experience, and I was having a lot of difficulty (and guilt) in reconciling the two. Morah may not have been thrilled that I devoted more and more of my time to college and less of my time to the learning that was to have been my primary pursuit, but she granted the underlying premise that high-level Torah studies and high-level secular learning could be combined.

She was rigorous and honest in her portrayal of the Eastern European Torah world, in a way that could be surprising to her Haredi students, raised on a mythology of prewar piety and uniformity. I remember a conversation about the practice of married women covering their hair. A classmate asked how the women in prewar Telz covered their hair. “Most of them didn’t,” Morah said, to her astonishment. My sister, who attended Yavne some years after I did, remembers Morah recounting how the students of the Yavne school for girls in Telz viewed the students of Sarah Schenirer’s Bais Yaakov in Krakow as hopelessly provincial and unsophisticated. Those Polish girls learned exclusively Torah studies. The Lithuanian students of Yavne studied Torah, and Hebrew language—and calculus.

To label Morah some sort of Haredi proto-feminist would be a distortion both of who she was, and what feminism is. But her messages about motherhood and family life were different from what I heard in the rest of my education. She actively encouraged us to get all the household help we could. “It’s a mitzvah to raise your children,” she told us. “It’s not a mitzvah to clean up after them.” She told us that at some point in the postwar years, her situation so abject that she didn’t even have a stove (she cooked, she said, on Sterno cans), but she nevertheless had some household help. She did not tell us that housework was elevated, godly, our assigned duty in life, akin to the priest’s removing ashes from the altar—all messages I heard from other quarters. She told us that it had to be done, and it was fine to pay someone else to do it.

But all of these stances, it is important to say, she saw as continuations of the legacy of Telz, not departures from it. Spending time with Morah was a way to get a glimpse of a destroyed world—of what the Torah world of prewar Europe had looked and sounded and felt and smelled like. That thick culture is inaccessible to us today; and for all of their beauty and richness, the Torah worlds of American and Israeli Orthodoxy have not recreated it.

I was in Cleveland from 1995 to 1998. The Cleveland Indians were an excellent team, playing in a beautiful new ballpark. The entire season’s worth of tickets would sell out within days of going on sale, months before opening day. (In three years in Cleveland, I never got to a game.) Early in my year in Yavne, someone offered us unused tickets they had. I, burdened by vast quantities of homework as a freshman physics major, declined, but a few second-year students went. Somehow, Morah found out.

My unreliable historical memory is that we were downstairs, in the big classroom, together with the first-year students, when Morah summoned the second-year students upstairs to address us in our classroom. “Addressed”—it was a shocked and dismayed tongue-lashing. We were in the middle of aseret yemei teshuva, the 10 days of repentance spanning Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The books of divine judgment were open, and our lives hung in the balance. And we could sit at a baseball game?!

In the moment, I was profoundly grateful to have had physics homework. In the quarter-century since, I have thought again and again of that illustration of what it meant to feel the Days of Awe in your bones, to experience the aimat hadin (fear of judgment) not as an abstraction or something confined to the ritual of prayer in the synagogue, but as a weight, a worry, a lived reality.

Morah did not allow us to learn Torah with our legs crossed. (If we forgot, she would stop teaching and direct students to uncross their legs.) That was a casual, informal posture, and one did not approach learning the word of God casually or informally. My modern Orthodox students spill out of their learning areas, sprawled on the floor with their holy books and their study partners. There is beauty in that, in their comfort and at-homeness with their sacred texts. But I try to share with them another way of thinking, one that I learned from a great woman, about our posture—our literal, physical posture—when we approach dvar Hashem.

Morah was not only a conduit to the destroyed Torah world of Eastern Europe, she was also a ready recounter of the destruction of that world. She did not confine her sharing her Holocaust experiences to official instances of commemoration or moments of survivor testimony. I remember her illustrating a point in class with a story that began, “When my sister and I were in the ghetto …” They were stories that had happened to her, and she shared them matter-of-factly, even as they landed for us with shattering force.

She told of her father on the night before the men of Telz were to be marched out and shot. Rav Bloch found himself unable to learn on his own, and so he called his daughter, and together they studied the laws of the sanctification of God’s name. The next day he dressed in his Yom Kippur clothing and went to his death. What that story said—about a world and its loss, about Torah and martyrdom, about a father and a daughter!

These stories make her sound like a commanding woman, and she certainly was. But more than that, she represented a world, a way of life, a coherent value system. She was a member of the aristocracy of that world, and she shared it with us. And through her, I got a glimpse of a world that I, growing up in yeshivish Brooklyn in the 1980s and 1990s, could not have known, and that my students, growing up in Scarsdale and Teaneck and Manhattan in the 2010s, cannot imagine.

As I write about Rebbetzin Ausband, I find myself wanting to use the language that the yeshiva world uses to mourn great leaders. Not z”l (may her memory be a blessing) but zt”l (may the memory of the righteous be a blessing); not yehi zichra baruch (may her memory be blessed) but mi yitein lanu temurata (who will give us her like). She was a gadol, a great one, even if she would never have taken that title, and no one in her world would have given it to her. The nature of Morah’s Torah leadership was that it was invisible to all but her legions of students. I have read obituaries of her in the Haredi press that describe her father’s, husband’s, sons’ and sons-in-laws’ Torah accomplishments, and say nothing about her own. She did not leave a body of writing. There won’t be hundreds of baby girls named after her this year. Her legacy, her leadership, her greatness are the thousands of Jewish women who learn and know and teach Torah more and differently because of her. And who do so sitting ramrod straight, both feet firmly planted on the ground.

Rivka Press Schwartz teaches history and serves Associate Principal, General Studies at SAR High School. She also serves on the faculty of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.

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