An Audience of One // Rabbi David Refson, the pioneering founder of Neve Yerushalayim, ponders the past 50 years of Torah education for baalos teshuvah

by Sarah Shapiro

A few days before this interview took place, its two participants—interviewer and interviewee—agreed that the better part of wisdom would probably be to cancel. For in response to an email from me asking if there were aspects of his life and work on which he would particularly like to focus during our upcoming discussion, Rabbi David Refson, much to my chagrin, had replied:

“I have zero interest or even willingness to talk about any aspect of my work and life. My teacher, Reb Elya Lopian, zt”l, taught us that the kavod from any publicity that we seek out is taken from our reward in Olam Haba. At my advanced age, a self-serving ‘advertorial’ about myself is the last thing my neshamah needs!

“Neve is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its inauguration and as one of its founders, I would be happy to speak of its past, present, and future, iy”H. Should this be consonant with the interests of your editor, I would be happy to meet.”
To which I replied:

“With your permission, I will forward this correspondence to the editor, Rechy Frankfurter. For my part, I find it hard to imagine a conversation about Neve and its history without involving the topic of your life and work.”

At this moment, even now, I still don’t know exactly how that preliminary stumbling block was removed from our path. All I can say is that the impasse, and its disappearance, served perfectly to introduce me to the charismatic, legendary director of the Orthodox world’s preeminent Torah institution for baalos teshuvah, where from one generation to the next, for the past 50 years, assimilated Jewish women from around the globe have been seeking, and discovering, their spiritual inheritance.


At two minutes after the hour, in strode a tall Rabbi David Refson for our 9 a.m. appointment, declining my offers of refreshment as I showed him to his seat.
“Rabbi Refson,” I begin hesitantly, “I hope it’s all right with you if we start off the interview with questions about your life.”

“Absolutely! I’m happy to discuss anything you wish. Full speed ahead. As the Baal HaTanya instructed, ‘Always transcend the obstacle.’”

“Thank you. So to begin, I’d like to ask if you ever anticipated when you were growing up that one day you’d spearhead a revolutionary concept in frum society—an institution to provide adult Torah education for assimilated Jewish women.”

“Well. The short answer? No. I did not. The long answer… I grew up in a religious environment in England, in a town called Sunderland. All my Jewish friends and I went to non-Jewish schools and Hebrew school in the afternoon. I didn’t learn a thing in Hebrew school. Really, nothing at all. In retrospect, I would say that this was a function of my resentment of having to spend my evenings studying while my non-Jewish schoolmates were out enjoying themselves.

“My father was a man of wealth, an entrepreneur. He did very well. And he expected me to take over the business.