Ahead of Shavuot, 3,000 Women Worldwide Are ‘Counting Towards Sinai’

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22 May 2024

 Orthodox Union’s Women’s Initiative Program Brings Meaning to the Period of Sefirat HaOmer

As Jews worldwide mark Sefirat HaOmer, the days between Pesach and Shavuot, 3,000 women are preparing spiritually for Matan Torah as participants of Counting Towards Sinai (CTS), a unique learning program created by the Orthodox Union’s Women’s Initiative.

“The name Counting Towards Sinai was chosen for two reasons,” says OU Women’s Initiative Founding Director Rebbetzin Dr. Adina Shmidman. “The first and obvious one is that we are literally counting towards Shavuot with our daily shiurim. CTS is also a nod to the fact that women count toward the study of, and connection to, Torah. Our program is a designated and open space where women can be involved and excited about learning.”

Launched in 2018 as a scholar-in-residence program for shuls across North America, CTS was rebranded when Covid hit in 2020 as a daily podcast featuring brief Torah lessons. Each year features a different theme, and this year’s series centers on Pirkei Avot’s 48 unique pathways to acquire, or connect with, the Torah.

“People are going to relate to each of the 48 pathways to Torah differently,” says OU Women’s Initiative Torah Program Coordinator Dr. Ayelet Shachar. ​​“Certain participants may relate to some avenues more than others, but everyone has a way to connect to Torah. It is our hope with this series that each woman finds the avenues they resonate with and connect to, while also being exposed to other avenues through which Torah is acquired and learning to cultivate those capacities within themselves as preparation for Matan Torah.”

Forty-two Torah educators deliver this year’s shiurim, with some doubling up on topics in order to accommodate the program’s start date after Pesach, on the ninth day of the Omer. Rebbetzin Shmidman notes that the program provides a space to showcase up-and-coming stars in the field of Jewish education.

“Our department’s objective is to tap into the pipeline and introduce fresh talent,” she says. “CTS features experienced, well-known teachers, as well as emerging ones. It’s my obligation and privilege to move these women forward and give them an opportunity.”

Dr. Shachar notes that the presenters are just as diverse as the topics they’re teaching.

“Our educators represent many different voices from around the world,” she says. “They are women of all ages, stages, backgrounds and occupations, and they too relate to Torah in different ways. Like the theme, the presenters are multifaceted.”

Since 2019, CTS has been sponsored by Harry Klaristenfeld, and his sisters Nancy Wilamowsky and Ella Shapiro, in memory of their mother, Charne Liba.

“Despite being a survivor of Auschwitz, she remained, throughout her entire life, true to the Torah values she observed in her father’s home and steadfast in her bitachon in Hakadosh Baruch Hu,” says Harry’s wife Etta Brandman Klaristenfeld who served as the founding chair of the OU Women’s Initiative lay committee and worked with Rebbitzen Shmidman on CTS from its inception. “I advised my husband and his sisters that sponsorship of CTS would be a truly fitting vehicle li’ilui nishmat their mother, who was a beacon of spiritual strength and hope.”

Unlike the department’s equally-popular, yearlong Nach Yomi program where podcasts span about 15 minutes, CTS shiurim aim to be about five minutes long. Rebbetzin Shmidman believes women are drawn to CTS because the content is on point with the time of year and daily podcasts are conveniently delivered to their inboxes and WhatsApp accounts.

“Baruch Hashem, we have women who are really exercising their learning muscles with Nach Yomi,” she reflects. “For others, who may have busy schedules, CTS is a very manageable and exciting option, where they have a daily touch point for roughly seven weeks. Participants get tremendous value in return for their investment.”

CTS has more than tripled in size since 2020 when the program drew 800 registrants, something Rebbetzin Shmidman views as a tremendous achievement. She is equally proud of participants’ highly positive feedback, which comes unsolicited.

“What’s interesting to me is that as much as I’ve always seen CTS as a very important programming space, it’s very meaningful to hear how much it impacts women,” says Rebbetzin Shmidman. “They know the program by name and they look forward to it every year.”

Amy Goldman of Sharon, Massachusetts, joined CTS in 2020, when the series centered on tefillah.

“During Covid, I was able to daven a lot slower for the first time in a very long while,” she recalls. “I’m an event planner and had no work, and was able to really focus on my davening in ways I never had previously. When I saw the CTS theme that year, I thought it was the perfect fit, because I was already concentrating on my davening. The program helped to give me more insights into my daily tefillot.”

Goldman takes notes on every shiur. She was so inspired by the tefillah content in 2020 that she copied podcast highlights in tiny letters into her siddur. In the siddur’s inside cover, she also recorded a moving idea shared by Rebbetzin Shmidman, which Goldman has shared with her children and others.

She is equally touched by this year’s content on Kinyanei Torah.

“I’m gaining special insights and perspectives on how one can approach Torah through everyday things that appear mundane, but hold deeper meaning,” Goldman says. “In general, I am so impressed with the presenters. A lot of them are dynamic and have a captivating way of speaking.”

Through her participation in CTS, Goldman received an email about the OU Women’s Initiative Leadership Summit, which she attended last summer, and which she describes as “transformative.” Rebbetzin Shmidman hopes CTS will serve as a springboard to inspire more participants like Goldman to explore other OU Women’s Initiative programming and Torah learning opportunities.

As a first-time program participant, Chicago’s Chaya Tova Hartman was drawn to CTS because of its reasonable time commitment and connection to the communal counting of the Omer.

“I love that I can make this period leading to the celebration of Matan Torah so incredibly meaningful,” she says. “I really treasure being able to learn and feel genuinely connected to this seasonal time frame, even though I’m well past my formal Jewish education years. Learning about the various ways to acquire Torah inspires me to be more mindful and intentional in my Torah learning.”

Hartman adds, “Rebbetzin Rebecca Belizon’s shiur on dikduk chaveirim (careful choice of friends) really resonated with me. She touched upon the concept of kneh lecha chaver, (acquire a friend for yourself), and how the best type of friends are those rooted in virtuous friendships, that elevate you. The shiur made me recognize how many of my good friends share like-minded values; we love learning and discussing Nach Yomi together, among other things. Rebbetzin Belizon made me appreciate how fortunate I am to have this dikduk chaveirim as part of Kinyanei Torah.

Dena Leff, of Far Rockaway, New York, is equally grateful to have joined CTS this year.

“For many years I have tried to make sense of the 48 ways to acquire Torah listed in Pirkei Avot, but was never able to,” she says. “In this series, each presenter explains the concept of Kinyanei Torah in a very practical way, and suggests actual efforts I can make toward achieving specific goals. I’m amazed that so many young, intelligent, and learned female educators are the rising stars of the next generation. Hats off to them! The Jewish people are in good hands.”

To register for Counting Towards Sinai, visit https://ouwomen.org/cts24/