Jerusalemites – Pearl Borow
An occasional series of interviews with notable veteran or more recent olim who have chosen to make their homes in Jerusalem.
BY DAVID OLIVESTONE
Rebbetzin Pearl Borow is one of the most beloved teachers in Jerusalem’s Anglo community. She made Aliyah in 1999 when her husband, Rabbi Aaron Borow, retired from his shul in the USA. Although now in her upper 80s, Rebbetzin Borow continues to enthusiastically teach several weekly classes on Navi and other topics for the OU Israel Center, Emunah Women, and Tovei Ha-Ir, amongst others. Elegant, dynamic, and highly articulate, she describes herself as a “people person”, a characterization that is validated whenever she speaks.
If I may say so, you’ve reached quite an advanced age. Do you have any plans to slow down?
I do think about it once in a while… but I love teaching and I’d rather you suggested that I give up making challah every week than to give up teaching.
Over the years you must have given many thousands of shiurim. Surely you don’t have to spend any time preparing now?
But I love to learn! Whenever I give a parashat haShavua shiur, there’s always something new to discover. When I teach navi, my delight is to find some peshat or angle that I haven’t thought of before. So on the days when I’m giving a class, I do work on it for several hours. There is simply no end to learning.
You must have had an extensive Jewish education.
Believe it or not, I had to fight for it. My father was a rav in Brooklyn, NY, the sound of learning Torah filled our home, and I was very much attracted to it. However my parents didn’t think it was necessary for me to have a formal Jewish education because I was a girl. So I started in public school, but I wasn’t happy. I kept saying I have to learn how to daven, so at six years old I campaigned to switch to the Crown Heights Yeshiva, which I soon did.
Did your father take more notice of you after that?
No, those were the times when girls’ education simply wasn’t important in families like ours. But my mother became my champion. She tried to keep me busy, because she didn’t know what to do with me. She introduced me to poetry at a very early age, the most amazing poetry, and I really think that that was what led me to navi, with the feeling of words fitting together in a certain rhythm of speech, conveying the magnificent ideas and messages of the nevi’im.
Where did you go to high school?
My father said, “It’s enough, you know how to daven”, so he registered me in a public high school, but I fought like crazy once again and in the end I went to the Yeshiva University High School for girls. From there I went on to Brooklyn College and I also took evening courses at the Brooklyn division of YU’s Teachers Institute, which was the only place where a young woman could continue to learn in those days.
Did you then go to work?
I majored in math, which I really enjoyed in high school and found to be very beautiful. This was in the 1950s, which saw the beginning of computers, and I got a job which I loved at a pension plans company, creating retirement plans for teachers all over the USA. But I had gotten married in my last year of college, and once I had my first child it simply was not acceptable in our world to continue to work.
Your husband became a community rabbi?
When he got his semicha, he was hired as the rabbi of the shul in Montgomery, AL. I always said I wouldn’t marry a rabbi because I felt that my mother was quite unappreciated as a rebbetzin. But I have to admit, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Still, Montgomery was day and night different from Brooklyn. Most of the Jews there were very far from frumkeit, but it was a wealthy community with beautiful homes, and southern women were really coddled and treated with gallantry. This was just before the beginnings of the civil rights movement, and we stayed there for five years.
Did you do any teaching there?
No, the Hebrew school was very small and only my husband and the shochet taught. We wanted to start a day school, but couldn’t get even five families to join. Eventually, we realized we had to move, not only because we needed schools for our kids, but also because of how the local culture was rubbing off on them. The final straw was when one of my boys came into shul, pointed to a chumash and said, “Gimme that cotton-pickin’ bible”.
Where did you move to?
In 1964, my husband became the rav of Congregation Nusach Hari B’nai Zion, a large shul in a very nice neighborhood in St. Louis, MO.
What was your role there?
I was a very active rebbetzin, and I had no intention of doing anything professionally, but soon I realized we needed more income if we wanted to send our kids to college. I took some courses at Washington University and spoke to one of the administrators, who told me that my math degree and my knowledge of computers were way out of date, and “…in any case, you’re a people person, didn’t you ever think of teaching?” I said I didn’t think I would be a good teacher and went home very discouraged. Now I’m not making this up, but the moment I got home the phone was ringing. It was the principal of the local day school who was desperate to find a teacher for navi and dinim. I was about to say no, but I heard my voice saying, “I think I’d like that, but I don’t know how.” He told me he would help me, and he really did, and got me started. I was hooked, really hooked, and I never turned my back on it after that. I did take some courses to hone my skills, but I now regret very, very strongly that I didn’t pursue any higher degrees in education because there were a lot of curricular ideas I wanted to work on, but I lacked the tools.
When did you start teaching adults?
After 18 years, it was time to move on from the day school. I started teaching courses in Judaism and Jewish history to unaffiliated and non-observant adults in the community. That’s when I really started to appreciate the wonders of Jewish history and world history. Soon I was asked to speak for other organizations, and I also gave a Shabbat afternoon shiur in my house. All that continued until my husband retired and we made Aliyah.
Why didn’t you just stay on in St. Louis?
My husband believed that a retired rav should never stay in his community, and we both felt very strongly that Israel was where we belonged. I was a very staunch member of Bnei Akiva as a teenager, and I felt very comfortable when we came to Jerusalem.
When did you begin teaching here?
A friend introduced me to the OU Israel Center and I first taught a course on the seven nevi’ot, and helped start a women’s beit midrash in the afternoons. I was also invited to teach for Emunah and Tovei Ha-Ir, and for many years I have taught a weekly navi class in Hebrew for women in my shul.
Why do you love to teach navi so much?
It’s music; even the prose is music. The writing is utterly beautiful, and it is so full – there is so much to learn. So much of the philosophy of Judaism is derived from the words of the nevi’im, as well as so much of our history. And that’s why I love to teach the commentary of Malbim so much. He really wants you to understand the peshat – how specific words are used to convey the deeper meaning. He is sometimes wordy and hard to get through, but when he’s done, he really leaves me breathless.
Finally, would you say that you have fulfilled your dreams?
In terms of my family I must say that I have, because, baruch Hashem, I have many great-grandchildren, although I’m hoping that He will let me see a fifth generation. As far as my teaching is concerned, as I said, when I set out it was never actually a dream of mine, but I cannot even put into words the tremendous, tremendous satisfaction I get out of it.
David Olivestone is an award-winning writer who served on the staffs of the British Museum and of the Encyclopaedia Judaica. He was Director of Communications at the Orthodox Union in New York before making Aliyah to Jerusalem with his wife Ceil in 2013.