What the Woman on the Light Rail Told Me

What the Woman on the Light Rail Told Me

This past Tuesday, I took the light rail downtown to meet my husband. I used to like taking the light rail, but not anymore.
Nowadays, I only take public transportation if I have no choice, and I feel nervous until I make it back home safely again.
This trip, though, was a bit different.

When I got on the train, I found an empty seat next to an older woman reading from a well-worn book of Psalms. She recited Psalms silently until we reached the market, at which point she switched to Perek Shira. Sitting next to her, I noticed that I felt a lot calmer than usual.

I looked around the crowded train, and realized that probably there were quite a few people in the crowd who felt calmer because this woman was on the train with them. She was providing us with a real service, a real act of kindness! Sort of like the soldiers who, over recent months, have been standing guard at the light-rail stations with their machine guns to keep us safe.

The woman and I, it turned out, were getting off at the same stop, and as the women closed her Perek Shira I told her, “It made me feel better to be sitting next to you while you were praying, thank you.”

And the woman smiled and said, “I will make a suggestion to you, then. Next time you are going somewhere, you can also bring your own book of Psalms. You can pray too.”

“That’s a great idea!” I said.

And I remembered a story I had read the night before, in the newly-released book Wisdom for Living: Rabbi Noach Weinberg zt”l on the Parashah.*

One day around 60 years ago, a large number of rebbes and roshei yeshiva gathered together for a bris.

Rabbi Chatzkel Sara, the Rosh Yeshiva of Chevron, told the distinguished crowd: “I know all of you here think it was your grandfather that had the greatest impact on the Jewish people over the last 100 years. But I am here to tell you today that it was none of them!

“Furthermore, the person who did have the biggest impact on the Jewish people was not a Torah scholar– in fact this person did not even know how to read a page of Talmud!

“And I assure you, when I tell you the person’s name all of you will agree with me immediately!

“The person who had the greatest impact on the Jewish people over the last 100 years,” Rabbi Chatzkel pronounced, “was Sarah Schenirer,” referring to the founder of the Bais Yaakov schools.

And all the rebbes and roshei yeshiva present immediately agreed.

Rabbi Noach Weinberg zt”l explained*: “Without Sarah Schenirer, the Jewish people would have been decimated. While young men in yeshivah were being educated and inspired with Torah and mitzvos, the young women were going to public school and losing their connection to Judaism. Without a generation of religious women, there can be no next generation of the Jewish people. She recognized this problem and created the Bais Yaakov movement of Jewish schools for girls.

“What was Sarah Schenirer’s secret? How did she address a problem of the Jewish people that even great men like the Chofetz Chaim, Rav Chaim Ozer, and the Gerrer Rebbe did not address?

“In her diary, Sarah Schenirer tells her secret.

“She was a seamstress, and young women would come to her to have clothing made. She would talk to them, and she saw up close how weak these girls were in their commitment to Judaism and understanding of Torah. She writes in her diary that she would cry for them, thinking, I am sewing beautiful clothing to cover their bodies but their souls are bare, because they lack mitzvos.

“Sarah Schenirer saved the Jewish people because she saw a critical problem, took it to heart, and took action.”

But to make an significant impact, I think, the action we take need not be the greatest act performed by any Jew in the last century, like Sarah Schenirer.

It can be something small.

Like that woman on the light rail. With her book of Psalms. And her perek Shira. And her suggestion that I join her too.

* This is quoted from the book Wisdom for Living: Rabbi Noach Weinberg zt”l on the Parashah by Rabbis Nechemia and Yitzchak Coopersmith (The Shaar Press)

Related posts:

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The Messy Mom
My Miracle Child by Rachael Konigsberg (Chanukah Semifinalist #5)

9 comments

  1. This is SO BEAUTIFUL! Yes! We must all – every day – do even the smallest thing . . . and collectively we can make a huge impact! On a side note, I take much comfort in the Psalms.

  2. i have lived in brooklyn, NY for over 25 years. every time i get on a public bus or subway, i take out my Tehillim and start reading. it has calmed me down and i think it has protected me from the hazards that lurk there…
    an excellent suggestion for all of us, for every day!

  3. Tehillim in purse at ALL times for every situation . . . !

  4. the previous Rebbe recommended that everyone know some Torah, tehillim, or Mishna by heart to be recited whenever they go anywhere (since it is hard to read while walking!) this purifies the air and protects the person from all types of things. Singing Jewish songs that are from Torah pesukim is a way of accomplishing this without having to sit and memorize.

  5. Hadassah – that is beautiful! I do remember standing in the emergency room after my father and my daughter had been injured in a car accident. I couldn’t even think of my daughter’s name when I got there. I was so distraught. I could though, still remember the alephbet. “aleph” – Hashem is my Father (Av). . . “bet” – Hashem is my Refuge (Betach). . . “gimel” – Hashem is great (gadole) . . . “dalet” – Hashem is my Guide (derech) – “hey” – Hashem is my Praise (halal). These thoughts brought me back from my hysteria and calmed my soul. One can almost always remember the alphabet.

  6. Wow Leisel – Very profound. Thank you for sharing that. It reminds me of advice my son once told me his Rosh Yeshiva taught, so know that you are in company of a giant, Reb Yonasan David Shlita; he said, one reason for always using a siddur or bentcher when praying even things you know by heart, is that there are times when our minds begin to wander and we cannot daven with full concentration, and sometimes we do not even understand everything we are saying, which also makes it easy to be distracted. He said to use the siddur because when all else fails, concentrate on the letters of the alef-bais as you are saying the words. Just read the words and as you are reading them, think gimmel, and mem, and lamed, and so on. It transports you to a very holy and focused kind of consciousness. I have tried that and it is true for me!

    Also, This was a great and important story Channa Jenny – thanks. Very strengthening. We can all do something big, in this way.

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