The Secret of Jewish Femininity: An Interview With Rebbetzin Tehilla Abramov
It is written that the final redemption will come in the merit of the women,” says Rebbetzin Abramov
I must admit, I was a little starstruck when I was offered the chance to interview Rebbetzin Tehilla Abramov. I mean, who hasn’t heard of her? Her books (The Secret of Jewish Femininity; Two Halves of a Whole; Straight from the Heart; Our Family, Our Strength; and The Unique Princess) are practically required reading for any Jewish women interested in, well, being a Jewish woman.
The organization that she started with her husband (and co-author) Rabbi Yirmiyohu Abramov, Jewish Marriage Education (established with the encouragement and guidance of Maran Hagaon Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Aurbach, zt”l, in consultation with Maran Hagaon Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, zt”l) has trained thousands of teachers over the past 30 years to give brides and married women “a deeper understanding of marriage and family life, according to Torah.”
A native of South Africa who moved to Israel as a child, Rebbetzin Abramov has lectured all over the world, teaching women one-on-one and also training kallah teachers, and has become one of the most respected advocates for spreading awareness of tznius, shalom bayis, and family purity to the larger Jewish world. (Thanks to modern technology, her teacher training course on jewishfamily.org will be available for Jewish women from all over the globe.)
When we sat down to speak, I was immediately surprised. For someone with such an authoritative voice on the page, Rebbetzin Abramov is a gentle, unassuming and down-to-earth woman in person. A very private woman, she agreed to be interviewed as long as I kept the focus primarily on an exciting new project of which she is at the helm. However, there were a few things about herself she was willing to disclose. First and foremost, “I want to help people. That’s my goal,” she says—even if it means stretching herself past her comfort zone. When she was offered the chance to teach her very first kallah, she admits that “it was very, very scary, actually.
The responsibility of giving it over. How you give it over is a make or break.” Needless to say, she was successful, and it pushed her forward to teach more women who might not learn otherwise. “There was— and still is—a need,” she explains. “We can’t keep this information to ourselves; we have to give it over.” Before moving forward, she studied rigorously to ensure that she would teach with the utmost accuracy. All questions she had were taken straight to the top: to Rav Elyashiv, who gave his haskamah to everything she was writing and teaching. Over the years, Rabbi and Rebbetzin Abramov would consult often with Rav Elyashiv, developing a kesher with him.
The Rav, inturn, had the utmost respect for Rebbetzin Abramov’s work. Said Rebbetzin Yocheved Elyashiv, daughter-in-law of Rav Elyashiv, at a JME event, “When Rebbetzin Abramov would come—even if the Rav was not in a strong physical state—if he heard she was there, he asked that she be brought in...The Rav said, ‘Her teachings are true. I reviewed them, and my son-in-law went over them. It is all 200% and you can rely on her.’...The Rav, whose time was so precious, received her at any time because he felt this woman does everything l’shem shamayim.” After 15 years of teaching kallos, when the need for more kallah teachers became apparent, Rav Elyashiv sent the Rebbetzin to Rav Auerbach, who was the head of the Israel Center for Taharat Hamishpachah, and who guided her in developing the curriculum for an organized teachers’ training course (to which he later gave his haskamah).
The seeds for what would eventually become Jewish Marriage Education (JME) were already gestating, but the loss of her father, Rav Yisroel Alexander Katz, zt”l, lent an added gravity to the project. While sitting shivah, she heard a particularly inspiring story about him, which she had never known. After people came to South Africa from Europe, many of them stopped keeping Shabbos due to pressures of parnasah.
This so upset Rebbetzin Abramov’s father that he created a “gemach li’shemiras Shabbos.” He went from person to person, asking what they earned by working on the holy day. “If I gave you that money, would you keep Shabbos?” he asked them. When they agreed, he paid them the needed amount. The story inspired Rebbetzin Abramov to create JME in her father’s memory, and in the same spirit of inspiring people to do mitzvos. “We can’t pay people to keep taharas hamishpachah,” she says, “but we can talk to them.”
Thirty years later, JME has inspired thousands of women and trained thousands of teachers to give over the nuts and bolts of mitzvos for Jewish women, along with hashkafah for marriage, parenting and tznius. Due to the tremendous lack of modesty in today’s world and its effect on the frum world, Rebbetzin Abramov, encouraged by Rav Elyashiv, has dedicated herself to raising awareness concerning, and educating others about, the mitzvah of tznius. According to the Vilna Gaon, says the rebbetzin, the mitzvah of tznius for women is parallel to Torah learning for men. “At 100 years old, this is what worried Rav Elyashiv the most,” she says. “He said, ‘Fix tznius and there will be peace.’” Although she has been teaching about the mitzvah for years, Rebbetzin Abramov knows as well as anyone the personal sacrifice it takes to practice tznius in accordance with the law. About a decade ago, the rebbetzin saw a proclamation in the name of Rav Elyashiv stating that it was preferable to wear a tichel instead of a wig.
She asked the Rav if this was truly his opinion, and when he confirmed that indeed it was, she asked him what she should do. “I was concerned. Going around the world teaching women who were not always familiar with a Torah lifestyle, if I would be wearing a tichel would I risk alienating them?” Though she asked the Rav on multiple occasions and though he was clear that a tichel is preferable to a wig, he never told her exactly what to do, but left it for her to decide. “If you can manage...” is all he would say. (She has not worn a sheitel since.)
Rebbetzin Abramov says the Rav was extremely concerned about the modesty of the wigs as well as the general level of modesty. Therefore, it was with his encouragement, and the guidance of his son-in-law Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein, shlita, that Rebbetzin Abramov completed her latest book, The Unique Princess, which offers guidelines for and hashkafah on the mitzvah of tznius and head covering, as well as guidelines from gedolei Yisrael. (Wrote Rav Ovadia Yosef in his approbation: “It is written with intelligence and good taste.”)
When it was finished, Rav Elyashiv gave his approbation for the book, while his daughter, Rebbetzin Batsheva Esther Kanievsky, gave a letter to include as well. “Little did we know that this would be amongst the last approbations that father and daughter would ever write,” reflects Rebbeztin Abramov. The day the book was released in Hebrew was the day that Rav Elyashiv left his home for the last time to be hospitalized, while the book’s English release date was the day of the Rav’s petirah. Says the rebbetzin, “The Rav gave me his brachah numerous times for the publication of the book, the subject of which he considered to be of major importance for klal Yisrael.
The more this mitzvah is understood, the greater women’s simchah in the observance will be.” After Rav Elyashiv’s passing, the Abramovs wished to do something l’iluy nishmas—which leads us to the rebbetzin’s latest project. Two years ago, under the auspices of JME, the Abramovs organized to have a Sefer Torah written in memory of the Rav. “He was the embodiment of Torah,” the rebbetzin explains. This Sefer Torah, which was completed a few months ago, on 28 Tammuz (Rav Elyashiv’s yahrzeit), is different from any other that has ever been written, because it is sponsored exclusively by women and girls who commit to learning and improving in tznius.
Upon its completion, it was taken to Bnei Brak, to the homes of Rav Chaim Kanievsky and Rav Yitchak Zilberstein, who wrote some of the Torah’s letters. The actual completion took place in a moving ceremony attended by many gedolei Yisrael at “The Caravan,” Rav Elyashiv’s shul, where his sons, sons-in-law and grandsons all wrote the final letters in the Torah. The Torah is currently being used at “The Caravan” until the Hachnasas Sefer Torah, which will take place after Yom Tov. It is being donated to Yeshivas Torah Betifarta by request of Rav Zilberstein and Rav Chaim Kanievsky.An interesting twist landed the Torah’s me’il right in the rebbetzin’s lap.
As the Torah neared its completion date, Rebbetzin Abramov visited an embroidery factory in Yerushalayim, where she saw a blue velvet Torah cover with the decorative image of “Shaar Vilna,” which is the opening page of every Gemara. “It was embroidered in gold and silver, so after adding a keser Torah, we decided that this was a perfect tribute to Rav Elyashiv,” the rebbetzin recalls. “I also couldn’t help noticing that the two vases that appeared in the image were embroidered with small pink flowers—a nod to the women who would be sponsoring the Sefer Torah in the name of tznius improvement. In fact, it was so perfect, we ordered an identical one in white for the Yomim Nora’im.”
The Abramovs wanted to have the Torah finished by the Rav’s second yahrzeit, and they borrowed funds to ensure that it was. Now, says the rebbetzin, “I’m looking for my ladies”— ladies who want to learn and improve in the unique mitzvah of modesty. By doing so (along with sending a minimum donation of $10 toward the cost of the Sefer Torah), she will receive a letter in the Torah and a personal brachah from Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita.
“It is written that the geulah shleimah will come in the merit of the women,” says Rebbetzin Abramov. “So let’s all work together to make this come true speedily in our days.” Rebbetzin Abramov makes it clear that even a minor improvement in tznius makes a woman eligible to participate, because “even the smallest step forward is great in the eyes of Hashem.”