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)