Every Wednesday evening I would meet with Rachel. Despite the distractions of the television blaring and neighbors bickering, our conversation kept us in our own world. Trying to come up with interesting things to talk about that could bridge the gap of nationality, language and about seventy years that separated us often resulted in a lot of stumbling, but I was greeted each time with nothing but warm smiles that felt like a pinch on the cheek.

I was confronting something very basic that was missingI visited her in the nursing home as part of an effort by my Jewish studies institute to reach out to the local community. As a full-time student of Torah, my news was often something I had learned in class over the past week.

It was not simple. My brain would try to sort through the nuances of Medieval commentaries I had learned. But next to this woman in her nineties who had little formal education at all, I was stuck. It didn't take me long to realize that in my struggle to hash out details, I was confronting something very basic that was missing, something that can be demonstrated rather than taught.

The Torah of today is largely the Torah of book knowledge. Want to know how to keep Shabbat or keep kosher? How-to guides in English and several other languages abound in print and online, and there are dozens of institutes of higher Jewish education for women opening up the doors to learning the holy books firsthand. But for my new friend who came to Israel from Iran when she was sixteen years old, there were no programs for learning to speak Hebrew, no women's classes to investigate different rabbinic opinions, and few institutes of higher Torah learning for women. There were also no questions about if or how to keep Shabbat.

As a young working mother living in Israel before the appearance of the telephone and the washing machine, she had three children by the time she was my age, and I doubt she would have had time for classes anyway. In other words, our experiences in relating to Judaism couldn't be more different. For her, there was tradition, and there was faith.

Women raising families today have significantly more Jewish knowledge at their fingertips than ever before. As published material on how to follow Jewish law has proliferated in recent years, so has the need for material to understand how it is that we have a law in the first place. Curricula at women's learning centers today are composed of classes not only on the laws of keeping kosher and Torah study, but also fundamentals such as belief in G‑d – issues that simply were not discussed when Rachel was my age.

There are daily prayer services on the ground floor of the nursing home, and on Shabbat morning, a few of the residents come downstairs to participate. The last time I went, I sat in the row behind Rachel and happened to look up at her during the Torah reading. I saw her fervently running a gnarled finger along the text in her lap. The large print was from the previous week's Torah portion.

For her, there was tradition, and there was faithAmid the confusion, perhaps due to poor vision and a bit of senility, there was a passion for delving into the text. I felt a mixture of sadness and pride that young Jewish women today have this opportunity for intensive study that passed Rachel by. The advancement of women's Torah study is a significant achievement, and it is helping Jewish families across the religious spectrum. While women pursue and excel in a wide range of professions and occupations, there is no question that they should also be provided with strong formal Jewish educational institutions as well. Many of the traditions that used to be passed down from mother to daughter have disappeared, and they are being recaptured in book form.

The opportunities for formal Jewish women's education today are unprecedented, and they have created far strides in the development or our communities, but I think they also indicate a need to compensate for what has been lost.

When the Torah is paraded through the synagogue before and after the reading, one of the residents who otherwise stays hunched in her chair or over a walker, reaches her hands out, bringing them back multiple times to her mouth to blow kisses to the Torah. If her story is anything like Rachel's, or the other women on her floor I got to speak to, I imagine she never had the opportunity to learn in great detail what is inside. But that hasn't diminished the value she places on the roll of parchment.

I can look up the writings of the great 12th century sage Maimonides on belief in G‑d and the afterlife. But these women know intrinsically what is waiting in store for them.

When I introduced myself to one of Rachel's neighbors, I told her I was studying Torah. She cracked a big smile. When she was more mobile, she used to listen in on lectures, she said. If I would ask her why she keeps Shabbat, I'm sure she wouldn't be able to point to a textual source. She never learned how to read.

They demonstrated a classiness, dignity and drive that cannot be absorbed from a bookIt could be easy to dismiss belief without question as ignorance, but I have learned a great deal from these women while trying to recall what I was taught. They demonstrated a classiness, dignity and drive that cannot be absorbed from a book.

As today's women take advantage of all the formal religious education, what can't be lost is Who they are doing it for. I began learning for myself, to educate myself on what to do and why, but buried in the details was the fact that learning Torah is more than an intellectual exercise — it is a way of life and the means to connect to G‑d.

Baking challah, and even doing laundry and washing dishes were ways of serving our Creator and a meaningful role for women of earlier generations. These women had the belief and knowledge that all that they did had meaning and purpose. And this is something we need, as modern women, to incorporate into our lives as well. As women move outside the home to learn and work, the more that all our activities are performed with the desire and awareness of them as a means of connecting to G‑d, the more we will feel fulfilled in the role He has put us here to perform.