Tova Weingot had her ashram all picked out. It was 1977. The product of a nonreligious Jewish household (“Not even Shabbos candles, not even fasting on Yom Kippur”), she had long yearned for spirituality. “I knew there was more to life,” Mrs. Weingot recalls. “I was on a search.” She’d chosen religion as her major at Florida State University, eventually finding her way toward meditation and Eastern religions. A meeting with a guru on campus convinced her that she’d found what she was looking for, and after graduation, she packed her bags for India. En route, she landed in Greece, where she learned that the heat in India made traveling there next to impossible.
“Greece was boring,” says Mrs. Weingot, so when a group she met in a youth hostel invited her to tag along with them to Israel, she agreed, planning to stay on a kibbutz once she got there. Her plans didn’t quite work out that way. “Hashem picked me up like a mama cat picks up her little kitten,” Mrs. Weingot jokes, and “plopped” her at the Diaspora Yeshiva in Yerushalayim. A short but timely illness forced her to stay put for a few days, and as she talked with people there, Tova realized that the spirituality she’d sought in the ashram was actually to be found in Judaism. One year and eight months later, she was newly married to Rabbi Rafael Weingot, one of the original talmidim of Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld, zt”l, at Sh’or Yoshuv. (Rabbi Freifeld was the couple’s mesader kiddushin.) Rabbi Weingot had been “bitten by the Tzfat bug,” as she describes it, and wanted to move to the mystical city up north. “I don’t care where we live, as long as we stay in Israel,” was her response. One month after their wedding, they were official residents of Tzfat.
According to Mrs. Weingot, “People back home thought we were crazy. They’d say, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll stay there for a few years and then you’ll leave.’” Their prediction, however, never came to pass. Instead of passing through, Rabbi Weingot laid down firm roots by establishing Yeshiva Shalom Rav in Tzfat’s Old City. “He wanted to have something to belong to, something warm and vibrant,” Mrs. Weingot says. Simultaneously, she wasinspired to found its counterpart for young women. Opening a school for girls was not a new idea for Mrs. Weingot. In fact, as a teenager (well before she was even Orthodox) she was sitting in one of her classes and “had a flash”: One day, she would like to have a school and teach girls how to develop themselves and nurture their individual talents. After seeing so many of her peers make poor, self-destructive choices due to a lack of selfesteem or appropriate support, she thought about how much of a benefit such a place could be.
Then she promptly forgot about it. Many years later, however, the idea came back to her, full force. “I was waiting for someone to start a seminary so that I could be a part of it, and nobody was doing it. There were girls coming up here all the time, becoming inspired and falling in love with Tzfat, but I’d have to send them to Yerushalayim. But then the girls said, ‘Come on, can’t we do something up here?’” And so, the time came for Mrs. Weingot to transform her “flash” of inspiration into something concrete. With a family of still young children, k’ah, she opened the doors of Sharei Bina, a seminary that reaches out to young women to strengthen their personal spiritual connection. “There’s a feeling of emptiness where emunah should be,” Mrs. Weingot explains. “They need to ask their questions. They yearn for meaning in their Yiddishkeit.” Being the head of a seminary, Mrs. Weingot says, is an exercise in letting go. She can plant the seeds for her students, but she has no way of knowing if and when they’ll sprout.
Even getting the school started in the first place took an enormous amount of emunah in its future success, but she was encouraged by how easily everything worked out. Every teacher she called wanted a different subject, and their time preferences magically coordinated into an airtight schedule. “It all fell into place so perfectly,” she remembers. “I said, ‘There’s too much hashgachah pratis over here for this not to happen.’” Since 1993, Sharei Bina, unique for its creative arts curriculum, has inspired hundreds of girls from across the world. “They come and they hear things they never heard before,” Mrs. Weingot says. “The blank spaces fill up for them and they get very inspired. Yiddishkeit becomes exciting and meaningful. Then they want it in their lives because it represents those full places in their neshamos. When they do a mitzvah now, the wiring is connected.”
Running a seminary while mothering a large brood was, by Mrs. Weingot’s admission, “a challenge. But my deep, core belief was that if it ever got in the way of my husband and family, I would stop. It has to be third. Husband first, kids second, seminary third… It has to be that way, because what am I teaching girls anyway? Ignore your husband and your kids’ needs? No. The important thing is to have a husband and a family, and to invest yourself in that.” Mrs. Weingot is proud of her students’ successes—though, in her view, “success” is something every girl must define for herself. “It’s about her authentic relationship with Hashem—her real connection, not what I think her connection should be. A girl who finds herself: That is success.”