Answering women’s questions

Answering women’s questions

Teaneck gets a new yoetzet halacha — a person who responds to intimate halachic inquiries

Tova Warburg Sinensky
Tova Warburg Sinensky

Fertility, contraception, sexuality, family dynamics, and genetics. Those are among the complex and intimate topics about which Englewood native Tova Warburg Sinensky has answered thousands of questions from Jewish couples over the past five years.

This summer, Ms. Warburg Sinensky returns to Bergen County to take up the post of yoetzet halacha — female adviser about the laws of family purity — for the Teaneck community. The outgoing yoetzet halacha, Shoshana Samuels, is moving to Israel with her family after seven years in Teaneck.

Women in the community are invited to meet Ms. Warburg Sinensky and bid farewell to Ms. Samuels at the annual community-wide Teaneck Yoetzet Initiative’s “fundraiser and friend raiser” at Congregation Rinat Yisrael on July 18. (See box.)

The yoetzet halacha certification program was founded in 1997 by Chana Henkin, the head of Jerusalem’s Nishmat Center for Advanced Jewish Study for Women. Until then, Orthodox women had no choice but to ask male rabbis their questions concerning “taharat hamishpacha” (family purity) practices relating to a woman’s lifecycle in the context of her marital relationship.

Ms. Warburg Sinensky was one of five women in the historic first cohort of U.S.-educated yoatzot certified in 2013. (The singular form is pronounced yo-EH-tset; the plural is “yo-ah-TSOTE.”)

Today there are 119 certified yoatzot, 100 in Israel and 19 working in 21 diaspora communities.

“The major contribution of yoatzot halacha is establishing an address for women and couples to feel comfortable sharing more information when asking questions of an intimate nature, so they can receive halachically appropriate answers,” Ms. Warburg Sinensky said.

The cornerstone of taharat hamishpacha is a woman’s immersion in a mikvah (a ritual bath) seven days after the cessation of her menstrual period; after that immersion, she may resume physical intimacy with her husband. But the guidelines cover all stages in a woman’s married life, and therefore yoatzot field many inquiries about contraception, fertility, as well as issues arising postpartum and in perimenopause.

Typical questions yoatzot receive include: “We are doing IVF. Can you walk us through the process from the perspective of Jewish law?” “I have tried many contraceptives, and the adjustment phase is making our intimate life challenging. Any advice?” “I am going to an island for a vacation where there is no mikvah. Can I immerse in the ocean?” and “My husband and I do not engage in any physical contact at all when I am a niddah. We know this is do-able, but I just need some moral support and tips!”

There are two other yoatzot halacha in Bergen County: Shira Donath at Congregation Darchei Noam in Fair Lawn, and Nechama Price, the director of YU’s Graduate Program for Women in Advanced Talmudic Study, who is based at Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood and Kehillat Kesher of Tenafly and Englewood.

In Teaneck, which brought in its first yoetzet in 2007, the position is funded by a consortium of three of the township’s 14 Orthodox congregations — Rinat Yisrael, Shaare Tefillah, and Netivot Shalom — as well as by individual members of other shuls, Tirza Bayewitz, a Rinat member and chair of the Yoetzet steering committee, said.

Ms. Bayewitz said that members of all the synagogues in Teaneck and Bergenfield and women in faraway locales that do not have a resident yoetzet consulted with Ms. Samuels frequently. (There also is a hotline for questions — (877) 963-8938 — as well as an online address for them,

“In one three-month period in 2017, Shoshana received about 100 calls or emails per month,” Ms. Bayewitz said. “That’s pretty consistent at different times during the year.”

Ms. Warburg Sinensky, a 37-year-old mother of three, just completed five years as the yoetzet halacha of greater Philadelphia and will continue as the yoetzet for the Young Israel of Toco Hills in Atlanta, which she visits several times a year. She has been the interim yoetzet halacha of the Riverdale Jewish Center twice.

The job also involves planning and leading community educational programs. The local schedule is on the Facebook page of the Teaneck Yoetzet Initiative.

“I am passionate about making Torah learning exciting and accessible to women of all ages and stages,” Ms. Warburg Sinensky said. She has a master’s degree in secondary Jewish education from Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School and has completed YU’s Graduate Program for Advanced Talmudic Studies for Women.

Earlier in her career, she chaired the Talmud and halacha departments at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck and at the Kohelet coed yeshiva high school serving greater Philadelphia. There she also was a “reflection coach,” mentoring new and veteran teachers. This fall, she will mentor teachers and teach Bible at her alma mater, the Frisch School in Paramus.

“I’m also working on a curriculum focused on intimacy and healthy relationships in a collaborative effort with the teachers at Frisch,” she said. The material will be presented separately to boys and girls by teachers of their own gender.

“It has been helpful to me as a yoetzet and as an instructional coach to have a common skillset that I use in both of my fields to help people grow, and to connect with them,” she continued. “I think the most critical piece to success is establishing relationships and making people feel comfortable and safe.”

Yoatzot can be most effective, she added, when they develop relationships not only with the people who ask questions but also with such stakeholders as the community’s rabbis and their wives.

Striving to package halachic information in creative, appealing, and accessible ways to meet the needs of each community, Ms. Warburg Sinensky has innovated unusual educational events. In one, women are provided with questions and halachic, medical, and social/emotional “clues” and try to answer them, in order to understand halachic process. She’s led webinars for women who can’t come to in-person events, and a “Taharat Hamishpacha Hacks” class offering 10 pieces of advice based on frequently asked questions.

Ms. Warburg Sinensky serves on the advisory committees of the Georgia-based Jewish Fertility Foundation and of the Jerusalem-based Eden Center, whose goal is to enhance the mikvah experience and connect it to women’s health and intimacy education. On behalf of the Jewish Fertility Foundation, she created a sensitivity training document used in sensitizing some 100 Atlanta-area doctors who deal with Orthodox Jews.

Talking about the level of commitment to taharat hamishpacha among observant Jews, Ms. Warburg Sinensky said, “I have seen a growth mindset about this area of law. People are open to learning and hearing. The way the halacha is presented and packaged is critical to it being observed and adopted, and that’s something leaders and educators really need to think about in order for people to want to keep this area of law.

“As a yoetzet and as a female who can relate to this, I try to make it more palatable.”

The Miriam Glaubach U.S. Yoatzot Halacha Training Program, based in Teaneck, involves two years of study with experts in halacha and in obstetrics and gynecology, fertility, psychology, psychiatry, and leadership development, followed by a certification exam. The program’s dean is Rabbi Kenneth Auman, rabbi of the Young Israel of Flatbush; longtime YU faculty member Rabbi Gedalyah Berger of Teaneck is the head teacher.

If a yoetzet receives a question requiring rabbinic expertise, she will investigate the opinion of the questioner’s own rabbi, if there is one, or will consult with a specialist in the laws of taharat hamishpacha such as rabbis Auman or Berger, Ms. Sinensky said.

Rabbi Yosef Adler of Congregation Rinat Yisrael was the first Teaneck rabbi to hire a yoetzet halacha.

“As the founding shul of the Yoetzet Halacha program in Bergen County, I and the entire Rinat community are delighted to welcome Tova Warburg Sinensky as our next yoetzet,” he said. “Our previous yoatzot, Shayna Goldberg and Shoshana Samuels, have been invaluable additions to our shul and the broader Teaneck community, and Tova has huge shoes to fill. I am fully confident that with her scholarship and experience in Philadelphia and Atlanta, she, too, will significantly elevate our community to greater adherence to one of the most difficult areas of Jewish law to absorb.”

Rabbi Kenneth Schiowitz of Shaare Tefillah said that the Yoetzet Halacha program has greatly benefited his congregants “by providing a comfortable way for women to access additional religious, halachic, and personal guidance. Tova is a caring, competent educator and yoetzet halacha and we very much look forward to welcoming her into the community.”

Congregation Netivot Shalom’s Rabbi Nati Helfgot said that having yoatzot halacha in the community “has increased observance of critical areas of Jewish law and added to family harmony in a significant fashion. The Yoetzet Halacha program is part of a tapestry of positive developments that have emerged in the last three decades in the Modern Orthodox community, as a result of the growing access of talented and committed women to the core halachic texts of our tradition and opportunities to receive training to serve in rabbinic, pastoral, and educational leadership roles.”

Rabbi Helfgot said the Teaneck community “owes a debt of gratitude to Shoshana Samuels, who served as yoetzet halacha with such dignity, sagacity, and deep empathy for each and every person she interacted with. I deeply appreciated partnering with her over the years in dealing with questions of Jewish law and pastoral challenges, as well as hosting her for various lectures over the years. We are looking forward as Tova Warburg Sinensky, a talented educator and emerging leader, steps into the role of yoetzet halacha here in Teaneck.”

Ms. Warburg Sinensky’s husband, Rabbi Tzvi Sinensky, grew up in Teaneck. He is a doctoral candidate at YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies and will be director of interdisciplinary studies and community outreach at the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston.

What: Community-wide Teaneck Yoetzet Initiative fundraiser

Where: Congregation Rinat Yisrael, 389 W. Englewood Ave., Teaneck

When: Wednesday, July 18, at 8 p.m.

SPONSORS: American Friends of Nishmat, AMIT, Emunah, Lamdeinu, Nechama Comfort, Project S.A.R.A.H., Sharsheret, Yesh Tikvah

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