Ever since she was a child, Avigail Bakaleynik was drawn to languages. By the time she graduated high school, she had studied and could communicate in Hebrew, Spanish and French. At Bryn Mawr, a women’s college in Philadelphia, she majored in Russian—one of the most complex languages on the scale of the Foreign Service Institute. Instead of focusing on literature or history, the usual path for that degree, she carved out a concentration in linguistics and second language acquisition, curious about how people learn and acquire language.
While in college, Avigail began meeting community members whose shomer Shabbos lifestyle seemed beautiful and satisfying. She wanted a home that would put family and Hashem at its center, and she knew that some sacrifices would be necessary to achieve that. When she was invited to present her undergraduate thesis at a respected symposium for second language teaching and acquisition at the University of Chicago, a rare honor, there was a conflict with Shabbos. She chose to decline. She didn’t regret it for a minute, though it seemed to close off part of the path to a career as a linguist.
Thousands of miles away, Dvora Kaplan (née Zilbershtrom) was growing up in a Chabad family in Yerushalayim. Her parents were both well-respected educators, and Dvora was raised with the mindset that chinuch was her family’s shlichus. A student who thrived in an academic setting, Dvora’s favorite school experiences were when she was given the opportunity to teach. Her teachers used to call her “morah mileidah,” a natural-born teacher.
After graduating from seminary, Dvora married and moved to Montevideo, Uruguay, where her husband led a smichah program. Dvora was hired to teach at the Chabad day school in the community.
“My first day in school in Montevideo was on 11 Marcheshvan [yahrtzeit of Rochel Imeinu],” Dvora recalls. “I went into class without the ability to say a single word in Spanish. And the students in that class were not advanced in their Hebrew. Still, I was eager to teach them about Rochel Imeinu and all that we can learn from her. I intuitively used different strategies, such as body language, pictures on the board, and words that they might know from Chumash, in order to relay the concepts that I needed them to understand. Somehow, it worked. By the end of the lesson, my students and I were singing the words to ‘Kol B’ramah’ together. There were tears in their eyes as they absorbed the beauty of the message.”
From early on in their lives, both Avigail and Dvora were fascinated by language and meaning, and by what language proficiency can do not only for people’s minds, but also for their hearts.
Gateway to Learning
It was the time of Glasnost. Toward the end of her college years, Avigail participated in an intensive summer language program in the newly opening Soviet Union. She searched for ways to ensure her kashrus and Shabbos observance while in Moscow, and to her great surprise, she found that by Divine Providence there was a vibrant community of frum refuseniks directly across the street from her language institute. “What’s more, my ideas about the primacy of language proficiency to a full-learning experience were vindicated,” says Avigail. “There was no ArtScroll for them. Every one of the Moscow baalei teshuvah made it a point to learn Hebrew as soon as possible in order to learn Torah in the original and to communicate with the rabbanim and visitors who came from many countries to teach them. If I hadn’t known Russian, I would still have been able to communicate. Lashon kodesh has always been our lingua franca.”
She then spent a summer in Bais Chana in Minnesota and a year in Breuer’s seminary, catching up on more formal Jewish education. “Because I had the Hebrew foundation (and some gifted teachers), I was able to keep up with Chumash and Rashi, a new type of study for me.”
Avigail and her husband, whom she met through her Russian refusenik connections, eventually settled in Chicago, where they frequently helped local shluchim, teaching and hosting Russian-speaking immigrants. Avigail has taught several grades and subjects in Chicago over the years, in addition to writing resumes and business documents. She and her husband sent their children to the local schools.
“As early baalei teshuvah, my husband and I were both fortunate enough to get a full yeshivah- and seminary-level education,” says Avigail. “But we went to these mosdos as young adults. We did not go through the frum day school system as elementary or high school students, and we were not aware of the strong emphasis on rote learning and teitchen. Our children, like us, thrive on explicit instruction using relevant, authentic materials. The read-and-translate method with some layers of dikduk exercises didn’t work for them. It was painful to see them and other capable kids lose interest in uncovering the depth and beauty of the Torah for which we had both sacrificed so much.
“For us, the gateway to Torah learning has been understanding the texts in the original, looking for the ideas—not just the translations—and being able to write and express ourselves in an active manner. So despite the excellent level of ahavas Yisrael and the strong identity that our children’s schools provided, we were still frustrated and confused when our children weren’t gaining the skills that we think of as essential to being a literate Torah Jew.
“I knew, based on my academic training and my own second language experience, that there was a different way. I also knew that previous generations have had a richer approach. How else do we have the mefarshim, the poskim, the maamarim and other writings, written so eloquently in lashon kodesh?”