A few minutes before 2 pm, I sit waiting for the phone to ring. Dr. Gertrude Webb is wide awake at 7am Boston time and calls me from across the ocean to study Torah. This is not her first Torah study appointment of the day. At 6:30am, this 90-year-old learns with her oldest son. In addition to these two daily sessions, she often has a weekly study partner.
More than 80 years ago, long before she discovered the joy of learning Torah, Gertrude saw children taunting a disabled classmate who was behind in school, and took upon herself the task of tutoring her friend, discovering the thrill of teaching. That's when she decided to devote her life to helping others learn and grow.
After raising six children with her husband, Dr. Webb embarked on a campaign to help children with dyslexia more easily reach their potential, founding the Program for Advancement in Learning at Curry College and the Webb International Center for Dyslexia. She taught teachers how to help their students discover and value their unique learning styles and abilities.
However, Dr. Webb had an unfulfilled desire to connect to her Jewish heritage. One day, she mentioned that she had never really learned how to read all the Hebrew letters. Starting Hebrew School at age ten, she was thrust into a class which was already reading, and just caught on as best she could.
The Great Depression put an end to her formal Jewish education, but not her desire to learn.
Three years later, at age 13 in 1929, the Great Depression hit America. When the Hebrew School teacher told the students to remind their parents to pay tuition, Dr. Webb went home never to return. She was not about to ask her father, who was working overtime to prevent the family from starving, for tuition to Hebrew School –what she considered a definite luxury. That day was the end of her formal Jewish education, but not her desire to learn.
Now, at age 90, not embarrassed to use a fourth grade Hebrew grammar workbook, she studies diligently and her reading and understanding skills have improved phenomenally. "Age is not a factor," she says. "It's a matter of concentration and motivation." A few weeks ago, she told me how delighted she was to be able to read the Bible for the first time in Hebrew. We recently celebrated our first completion of the Book of Genesis with a trans-Atlantic l'chaim.
My pleasure is mixed with boundless admiration, gratitude and love. In addition to being my study partner, Dr. Webb is my mother!
My daily learning sessions with my mom have deepened my appreciation and admiration of her efforts to grow as a Jew. And she is not the only one gaining from our partnership. I have been inspired by her example and her desire to continue growing and learning. And it's my first time going through the Bible slowly enough to concentrate on each word. Sometimes we just stick to grammar review, reading, translating, and discussing topics and ideas that come up. Elucidating basic Jewish concepts as they are connected to the text has shown me the unity and depth of Torah and its commentaries. On other days we also catch up on daily goings on and share stories and feelings about our lives. I am discovering things I never knew about my mom.
One day, after my mom thanked me profusely for learning with her, I was struck with the realization that I was, in fact, giving back only a little bit of what my mother had given me. As a small child, my mother told me about her grandfather for whom I was named. Zaidy, as she called him, was unaffected by his move from Lithuania to America. When his grandchildren invited him to the cinema to see the movies, Zaidy responded that he didn't need the cinema. He said that he had the Talmud, and that that was more interesting. Growing up, I didn't know what the Talmud was, but I knew it was more interesting than films. This was possibly the first beginning of my search for Jewish knowledge and understanding. Now we have come full circle. That which my mother had given me, I was returning to her.
My mother and I are experiencing the power of learning Torah together and how it can transform even the closest relationship. Our souls are deeply connecting and we helping each other grow spiritually.
If you don't know somebody in your own family with whom you can grow and learn, you can find yourself an ideal study partner through Partners in Torah.