Back in 1970, when I was a visiting student at the Hebrew University. thanks to the initiative of Hebrew University educator Mike Rosenak, Prof Nechama Leibowitz was the first teacher whom I met in Israel.
She gave her model Bible lesson, and gave us the ground rules: bring a full Bible to every class, do not chew gum, ask lots of questions, and “call me Nechama”, she would often say, with her perennial smile, beret, and good humor.
“Nechama”, as she indeed preferred to be called, gave lessons in the Great Book to anyone and everyone, always ready to receive invitations to speak, at schools, youth clubs, or in your very home.
Nechama synthesized two worlds as a teacher.
Nechama relied on all the traditional sources – Abarbanel, Ramban, Rashi, and more, yet she made the Bible story come alive with a potpourri of modern analogies, always to make her point.
Who will ever forget Nechama’s unique way of introducing the “Joseph Story” – “Now what was that ‘Jew-boy’ doing in the palace of a king and how did he get there?”
As she did with Joseph, Nechama made each significant figure of each character in the Bible. Often, I would watch her sip tea in the Hebrew University and seek out students to talk with and teach. It didn’t matter who the student was or where the student was from. And outside the University, Nechama made herself wecome in kibbutzim, in Mea Shearim, and in every walk of Israeli life.
Something refreshing at a time of increasing internal Israeli religious strife.
Two experiences with Nechama tell something about her.
Many years ago, when I went to work at a Jewish summer camp in the US, I asked Nechama for advice about preparing the Bible curriculum at the camp. She asked me to meet her right away. I thought that a busy lecturer and author like this would not have the time for such things. Nechama spent the better part of four hours helping me create a curriculum that transformed what might have been a bunch of boring lectures into what we today would become an interactive Torah theatre for children, and the kids loved it.
The other experience that I had was much more personal. I had long ago made a quiet prayer that if I were ever to have a daughter, that they would be able to understand and teach the Torah with the love and the vigor of Nechama.
So, when we had our first girl, eleven months after our first boy, I called Nechama and asked her if she would come and give a shiur in honor of our baby Rivka, on the subject that I had heard her speak during my first week in Israel: Rivka and the attribute of hesed.
At the same time, I asked Nechama if she had any objections to us adding a name in her honor, so that she would be Rivka Nechama. I knew that Nechama did not have any children. Nechama did not hesitate to give her agreement to the gesture, and she also agreed to come to Tzfat for Shabbat.
After word spread in Tzfat that Nechama was coming, more than three hundred people showed up on the lawn of the Wolfson community center, carrying Bibles – at Nechama’s request.
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