A Discussion with Mrs. Rookie Billet, Principal of Shulamith Middle School in Long Island. 

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When and where did you first start your career in education?

I began my career in Jewish education in Yeshiva University Seminars for public school kids, where college students served as advisors and outreach workers, teaching Judaism and Jewish values. I continued in informal Jewish education in summer camps for many years. My first position in formal Jewish education was in the high school I had attended, Yeshiva University High School for Girls (YUHSG) of Brooklyn. Marrying a Rabbi put me in a position to be involved in giving shiurim to adult women in the community as well.  After earning my MA in Sociology and teaching at the college level for several years while pursuing a PhD, I returned to formal Jewish Education, feeling that if I had only one life, I should live it as a Jewish Educator!

How did you end up as principal of Shulamis Middle School?

After years of teaching Tanach, Halacha, Jewish Thought and Hebrew Language and Literature at the high school level, I was fortunate to have been recruited to be an assistant principal at YUHSG in 1992 and have since served as Assistant Principal at Stella K. Abraham High School (9 years), as Principal at Ma’ayanot (6 years) and am now in my 7th year as Principal in Shulamith (Middle Division).

Where did you attend school growing up? What type of education did you receive?

My Jewish education began in Shulamith School for Girls in Brooklyn. Shulamith was the first Zionist all-girls school in America and even then emphasized Hebrew language skills as a basis for serious textual learning of Jewish Studies. I was assigned Torah research papers that we wrote in Hebrew! I credit my love and proficiency for the Hebrew language with my early education, which was the basis for skills in learning all kinds of Biblical and Rabbinic texts. I continued in the YUHSG, which emphasized similar values.

Who were some of your role models in education?

While attending Brooklyn College for my secular BA degree, I studied at Yeshiva University’s Teachers Institute for Women, which gave us a semester at Machon Gold Seminary in Jerusalem. It was there that Professor Nechama Liebowitz was my Bible teacher, among other Israeli scholars and teachers. A year in the Israeli program at Michlala in Jerusalem, lead by Rav Yehuda Copperman, another pioneer in advanced women’s education, enriched my learning.  I have continued to learn on my own and in chavruta.  Recently, I had the privilege of learning in and completing the Yoetzet Halacha Program under the auspices of Nishmat.

How do you think women’s Torah learning has changed in recent years in Orthodox schools? Has it improved for the most part?

Women’s learning has advanced in many ways in recent years.  In many schools, there are programs in both Bekiut (breadth) and Iyyun (depth). Young women surely have more exposure to Talmud, a venture supported by Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik and also by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, and to Shulchan Aruch, Mishnah Berurah, Rishonim and She’ailot and Teshuvot, in addition to the Tanach and Parshanut of yesteryear. There seems to be less exposure to Hebrew Literature, which is regretable, and insufficient emphasis on mastery of Ivrit, which I feel is a key to all serious textual learning. Learning at an Israeli Seminary for at least a year after HS is nearly universal, and this is a great advantage. For graduates of those programs, there are advanced, post-college programs both in the US (such as the Yeshiva University Graduate Program in Advanced Talmud Study), and in Israel, such as those at Matan and Nishmat. Large numbers of women attend a range of shiurim in their communities frequently and consistently.

If you could envision the perfect type of Jewish women’s education what would it look like?  

In my view, a responsible Jewish Education for women would provide students with the skills, the love and the motivation to become lifelong learners and leaders. Although covering lots of ground is wonderful, if a student has the skills, the love and the motivation, she can always cover more ground! Skills needed begin with the ability to read and understand Hebrew fluently and accurately. Students need to learn how to read texts closely and critically and ask questions on what they read. They need to learn how to analyze the difference in the approaches of the various commentaries, and be able to compare ideas and ways of thinking. Students should study Halacha with sources, so that they see where the rules they are told to keep come from, and understand the Halachic process and how it developed from the written Torah, to the oral Torah, the Rishonim, Acharonim and on to the Responsa Literature. All education needs to provide exposure to Chumash, Navi and Ketuvim, as well as a timeline of Jewish History and the colorful personalities who populate it. Students should learn from teachers who are passionate about their own learning and leadership and inspirational in their observance and human relationships.

What would you say you have contributed to women’s Torah learning amongst your students and women in your community?

I feel fortunate and privileged to have been involved in a leadership role in Jewish education and as a Rebbetzin over these exciting years.  Having begun when there weren’t as many women in leadership positions, it is gratifying and inspiring to see so many women in leadership roles both in schools, as yoatzot, and as community leaders and teachers.  Our female students have to know that there is a place for them to serve as leaders and that learning at the highest levels will prepare them for the roles they will fill in the future.

Why do you think it’s important for women to be educated in Torah learning, even if they don’t plan to pursue career paths in that direction?

Women should be educated in Torah learning because all women (and men) play a vital role in the continuity of Am Yisrael, even if they aren’t teachers in schools. Parents are the first, and often the most powerful and influential teachers. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to be as learned and as committed as possible. I often find that more learning leads to more firm and passionate commitment to the lifestyle of an observant Jew.

Where do you think the future of education is headed in this fast paced technological world?

Technology is the language of today’s young people. Teachers reach students by “speaking their language.” Technology can and does enhance Jewish learning tremendously and today’s successful Morot and Rebbeim use it to its full advantage both in classrooms and through the internet. Responsible use of technology is a wonderful tool to excite people about Torah study and values.