By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Friends gathered at Carol Salinger’s kitchen table in Glenview, where there was plenty of talk about grandchildren and great- grandchildren. But once the pleasantries were out of the way, the three women and a teacher dove deeply into the study of Hebrew and prayer.
Their completion of a portion of Jewish study over four years led to a siyum, a celebration of learning, at Northbrook Community Synagogue before 100 friends and family. The event marked a journey that demonstrated strength of character, perseverance, devotion to completing a task and life-long learning.
Salinger, Barbara Felt and Noreen Orbach each missed out on bat mitzvahs as teens, but they made up for it in years of personalized study sessions led by Shoshana Axler, a teacher at Northbrook who also taught their grandchildren.
“We each had our personal reason for wanting to accomplish something,” Salinger said. “It didn’t come really easy for me. We tried and I think we accomplished what we wanted.”
Orbach had the most Hebrew training from her early years. She was sent to a Hebrew day school in Lawndale. Her father was learned, laying tefillin every morning and davening. But when she was 12, her father passed away. Her mother was distraught and didn’t have the wherewithal to have her daughter bat mitzvahed, Orbach said. “From that point on, I’ve been playing catch up ever since.”
The women each had a goal in their learning experience. Felt, who knew no Hebrew, wanted to come to terms with the death of her parents. So, she chose to memorize and chant from the Book of Ecclesiastes: ‘To every thing there is a reason, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.’”
“I did some reading around that and I realized there really isn’t anything to do except lead a good life now and there is no answer, that we need to be in the moment and cherish your children and grandchildren while you’ve got them here. Be the best you can and it will all work out. That took a while for me.”
Salinger had learned Yiddish along the way at a senior center. She selected a woman’s prayer and two thanksgiving psalms to learn. She learned a prayer for the IDF and a Yiddish prayer. “My kids were so proud of me that I even attempted it. I’m 87, not a young kid. It didn’t come really easy for me. I hope to continue learning. I don’t know how much more, but we’ll do what we can.”
Salinger said that her son used to point out the right place in the Siddur during services. “Now that I can read Hebrew to a degree, my son is impressed and says, ‘You’re on the right page.’ The support from my kids has been great.”
Orbach said each of them did soul searching and research, “what we would want as individuals to accomplish for that celebratory day.” Of the learning experience, Orbach said they delved into the meaning of prayers and intonations, why certain prayers were read or used at different parts of the service.
Orbach chose to learn a haftorah in honor of her late father. It was in connection with Parshat Parah, which aligned with her birth. “It was a sense of accomplishment to stand before the congregation and chant the haftorah, having learned the trope, and offer a sermon drash in memory of my parents. Then I blessed my grandchildren and children.”
There are other opportunities to learn and take a deeper dive, Orbach said. “I look forward to doing it again. It’s nice to have a supportive environment with our synagogue that encourages that.”
Teacher Axler had mainly taught young children at Northbrook, a traditional synagogue. Salinger and Felt approached her about adult learning, at the time thinking about becoming a bat mitzvah. Later Noreen was added. “We started with learning to read and moved on from there,” Axler said. “There was a desire to do more learning.”
The weekly sessions, starting with the Book of Ruth, almost always ended up with questions and answers. “They sent me home with homework and I sent them home with homework. We all came back the next time and went on from there.”
Axler, who is making Aliyah, called the experience a pleasure and delight. “I’m not sure who learned more, they or I, but it was an opportunity that I’m glad I had in my lifetime.”
Rabbi Aaron Braun said that for Northbrook Community Synagogue it was a “wonderful experience giving these ladies the opportunity to spend time learning from traditional sources that they had seen before but had never really spent the time to grapple with and master. It also gave them the opportunity to have that pinnacle life experience of presenting a section of learning and knowledge to their friends and family.”
The siyum demonstrated an opportunity for other women who didn’t have the chance to have this experience when they were younger, Braun said. “It helps motivate adult learning, the opportunity to spread a little Torah and get up in front of a congregation and have that special moment no matter what age you are.”
To inquire about adult learning opportunities at Northbrook Community Synagogue, call Rabbi Braun at 847-509-9204.