She found a seminary that welcomed her and her questions. Besides being able to learn the basics, she was surrounded by brilliant, scholarly women: really knowledgeable, amazing women!
Initially, Ellen was disturbed by the “division of genders”, the obviously different roles expected of men and women. Yes, she was a “product” of her generation’s programming, but it wasn’t easy to shed her preconceived assumption that Jewish women were oppressed. This was her biggest obstacle to giving Torah a chance. And yet, there in front of her, surrounding her were incredibly, strong, accomplished women whom she could see, meet and hear on their own turf.
Ellen’s mornings were spent voicing all her protests, challenging questions and objections. Her teachers were so patient, and gave impressive answers. One penetrating insight would lead to a more complicated query, which would then set off a new train of thought and direction. Examining the responses offered by these highly intelligent, yet down-to-earth, approachable women, to see if their words contained any holes in logic, she was constantly amazed by their profundity. Even a Torah discussion on one verse, and the clever deduction of one commentary, was astonishing!
And her teachers were not just ensconced in intellectualisms, wise in learning, naturally passing on Torah by virtue of their ability to express deep concepts to beginners; they were also busy wives and mothers, balancing different people’s needs – in their families, their communities, and with the Jewish nation as a whole. They were both selfless and self-sustaining, doing outreach with others and inner work on themselves, nourishing their own neshamas with tefillah, study and continuous efforts towards growth. It was hard to not be impressed with their lives that she was privileged to see up close as a regular Shabbos guest warmly welcomed in their homes.
Ellen Shaefer wasn’t expected to make any “leaps of faith,” but rather to build a reliable Torah foundation with solid bricks of information and historical veracity. She could take her rightful place in a long, unbroken chain that traced back to before Mount Sinai and reached forward with hope to a Messianic future of ultimate goodness and blessing.
When she read a book by Rabbi Twersky, she was astonished by his accurate description of the torturous practices inflicted on prisoners in the Soviet Gulag, including the dehumanization techniques of the horrid twenty holes in the floor “bathroom” with guards at the door of the windowless room. She gasped in recognition. Had she actually been there in some previous lifetime?
Now it was even more important to her to return to Yad Vashem and find the photo of that little girl who had accompanied her spiritual journey of rediscovery.
It was fifteen years since she’d had the shock of seeing herself in that photo at Yad Vashem. As the months stretched on during that first year in Jerusalem, she could feel growing within her a strong, positive sense of satisfaction as she persisted in her Torah studies, delving to greater depths of understanding, while at the same time, realizing how much more there was to know. She had hardly known what it meant to be a Jew, or why the Jewish people were hated by those who sought to destroy them. She didn’t hate anyone, why should she be hated because she was Jewish?
But as spring approached, she knew that Pesach was quickly coming, the festival of Freedom! Real liberation, especially for her! Ellen felt strongly that she needed to return to Yad Vashem, to search and hopefully find that little girl she had met so many years before.
The museum was surrounded by gently, softly waving-in-the-wind pine trees, in the Jerusalem forest covering the hills and valley. She entered the main building and began wandering through the endless corridors, examining every photograph through both the eyes of the child she had once been, as well as the twenty-three-year old she was now.