1900 – 1988
Orthodox Jewish education for women in America began with the work of Nacha Rivkin, a founder of Shulamith School for Girls, the first girls’ yeshiva in the United States. Nacha (Heber) Rivkin was born on May 5, 1900, in Kalisch, Poland, the long-awaited first child of Yaakov Tuvia and Shaina Sora (Sytner) Heber. Rivkin’s father, an Alexanderer Hasid, owned one of the first lace factories in Eastern Europe. Her mother was also active in managing the business. Nacha attended the local Polish school and received private tutoring in Hebrew, Judaic studies, French, German, art, and music.
With the outbreak of World War I, the Heber family (by this time Rivkin had two younger brothers, Shlomo David and Aryeh Leib) was forced to flee Poland and settled in Rostov, Russia. There they met the Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Ber Schneerson, known as the “Rashab,” and his daughters Chana and Chaya Moussia. The Schneerson sisters became Nacha’s most intimate lifelong friends.
In 1920, Nacha Rivkin married Rabbi Moshe Ber Rivkin, a protégé of the Rashab, who was then dean of Yeshiva Tomchei Temimim in Lubavitch. Their first child, Ella (who later married Rabbi Aaron B. Shurin, author, journalist, and professor of Judaic studies at Stern College, Yeshiva University), was born in 1921. In 1924, Rabbi Rivkin was sent by the Rashab to Palestine to administer the Yeshivas Toras Emes. In Palestine, Nacha Rivkin continued to study Hebrew and began studying early childhood education, leading to an accredited teacher’s license. In 1926, the Rivkin’s second child, Sholom, was born. Rabbi Sholom Rivkin is the chief rabbi of St. Louis, Missouri, and chief judge of the Rabbinical Court of America. He is an international authority on Jewish divorce law.
In 1929, Nacha Rivkin and her children immigrated to America, joining Rabbi Rivkin, who had already gone to become dean of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath. The Rivkins settled in Brownsville, Brooklyn. To their distress, there was no Jewish girls’ school, so their daughter, then age eight, attended public school, and Nacha Rivkin taught her Hebrew and Judaic studies at home. Rivkin was soon approached by Rabbi M.G. Volk, who was seeking Hebrew-speaking teachers to help him open a school for girls. In 1929, together with Rabbi Volk, Rivkin and two other teachers started the Shulamith School for Girls in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Rivkin was responsible for curriculum development and taught kindergarten and first grade.
Rivkin is best known for her innovative approach to teaching Hebrew to young children. Influenced by Maria Montessori and Jean Piaget, she rejected the monotonous rote method used at the time and instead used games, songs, pictures, and stories to teach Hebrew language and Judaic studies. She made concepts such as Shabbat, Jewish holidays, and Jewish ethics an integral part of her Hebrew lessons. The mimeographed sheets, which she wrote and illustrated to help teach her pupils, eventually became the primer Reishis Chochma, which was published by Torah Umesorah in 1954. It was followed by a companion workbook in 1955 and the second volume, Reishis Chochma Bet, in 1967. The books are in their nineteenth printing and are used as the official primer for 550 Torah Umesorah day schools.
Music was important to Rivkin’s pedagogy. She made up songs to celebrate holidays and birthdays, as well as to teach the Hebrew alphabet. With the help of her daughter, who had musical training, these songs ultimately became the Shiru Li record series.
Rivkin was also a talented artist who painted over two hundred canvases during her lifetime. While mostly self-taught, she also studied under the noted Jewish artists Henoch Leiberman and Saul Raskin. With a preferred medium of oil paints, she created nature scenes and still lifes, while other paintings portray Jewish themes.
Rivkin continued to influence Jewish education even after her retirement. She was a major resource for books on Jewish early childhood education. In her early eighties, she taught pedagogic methods at the Sara Schenirer Teachers Seminary in Brooklyn. In 1980, Rivkin was honored by Yeshiva Torah Vodaath for her accomplishments in education.
Nacha Rivkin died on July 17, 1988 (3 Av), leaving two children, five grandchildren, and fourteen great-grandchildren. After her death, a group of educators founded the Machon Nacha Rivkin Seminary for Advanced Torah Studies for women, in her honor. The seminary, located in Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem, opened in the fall of 1989.
Nacha Rivkin dedicated her life to advancing Jewish education. Much beloved by students and teachers alike, her influence spread far beyond the halls of the Shulamith school. A courageous and proficient “doer,” she broke out of the mold of the passive, retiring, religious baleboosteh [homemaker]. Her willingness to infuse her lessons with Orthodox Jewish values at a time when public expressions of Jewishness were muted demonstrates her commitment to her faith. Through her music and artwork, she expanded the range of career possibilities for Orthodox women of her time. In all parts of her life, Nacha Rivkin exemplified the ideals of the Eyshet Hayil [Woman of Valor, from Proverbs]: “She girds herself with strength, and performs her tasks with vigor.... Her mouth is full of wisdom, her tongue with kindly teaching.”
Reishis Chochma (1954); Reishis Chochma Bet (1967); Shiru Li, with Ella Shurin (1960).
Rivkin, Jacqueline. “Nacha Rivkin.” Manuscript in progress, June 1996, and interview by author, July 15, 1996; Shurin, Ella. Interview by author, June 3 and July 3, 1996.