As I heard the devastating news of the passing of Belda Lindenbaum in Manhattan this week, I recalled a leader whose presence lit up the faces of all who surrounded her. She had a profound love of Judaism and the Jewish people, and insisted that we pursue an ethical, meaningful, just, Jewish life as the most valued priority.
I came of age into a Jewish world that was shaped by Belda’s continued leadership. I had the privilege to study at two of the leading institutions of Torah study for women that were built and guided by Belda and her husband Marcel with determination, generosity, and vision. Both Midreshet Lindenbaum, and Drisha Institute not only teach to engage Torah with rigor and dedication in the beit midrash, but instill and understanding that the Torah is a wellspring to guide a dynamic Jewish life.
I studied together with Belda in the walls of Drisha’s Beit Midrash where, together with her sister Carol, she created opportunities for others; they led by example in prioritizing Torah study in their own lives. I had the privilege of getting to know Belda’s extended family through the years and I witnessed a love and commitment to Torah that never shied away from addressing injustice or opportunities for improvement head-on. As I found myself among the thousands of women and men who had joined the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) I learned that we were never to be alone again in our journey – that the concerns of Jewish women were not women’s alone, but central agenda concerns for the whole Jewish people.
In the portion of the Haftorah we will read this Shabbat, Jeremiah prophecies the image of the person grounded in faith.
“She will be as a tree planted next to the water, which spreads out its roots along a brook and does not see when heat comes, whose foliage is ever fresh, and in the years of drought it will not cease producing fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:8)
Belda was our “tree planted next to the water.” She was firmly grounded by the water of Torah and the insistence that it was a dynamic life force. She “spread out her roots” to create opportunity and share her beloved Torah. She encouraged us all – men and women – to hang onto the roots of the Tree of Life. As the Jewish world confronted challenge after challenge, Belda stood strong, with “foliage that was ever fresh,” with a commitment to experiment, invest, explore, and never despair in seeking out the path to lead us forward.
Belda “will not cease producing fruit.” She made herself a partner who would not rest, to all of us who are blessed to have studied and worked with her; to the students whose caliber of education is thanks to her and Marcel; to the men and women who painful wrestle with the injustice of agunot; and to the passionate people who found community in the mission of JOFA. All of us have been dreamed, nurtured, encouraged, and challenged by Belda. We form her tree; we bear her fruit.
The Talmud in Tractate Taanit, tells the story of a destitute traveler. Hungry and thirsty, he discovers a tree standing near a wellspring of water, sits in its shade, eats of its fruits, and drinks of its water. The hungry and thirsty Jewish people were blessed to find Belda. We sat in her shade, and her tireless energy and efforts nourished the Jewish people on our continued journey.
As the story in the Talmud continues, the now refreshed traveler looks upon the tree with wonder, “Tree, tree, how can I share my appreciation?” The passage concludes that the greatest blessing is as follows: “May the many new plants that grow as offshoots of your tree be like you.”
May the institutions that Belda built, the generation of Torah scholars that she invested in, and the people who felt the impact of Belda’s unwavering commitment to bringing us forward, hold dear to our mighty tree and bring forth new saplings with Belda’s fiery passion and love for Torah, the Jewish people, and the land of Israel.
Ilana Fodiman-Silverman is co-founder of Moed, promoting a vibrant engagement with Jewish life in Israel. She is a graduate of the Drisha Scholar’s Circle and an alumnus of Midreshet Lindenbaum.