More than merely immersing themselves monthly in a mikvah, religiously observant Jewish wives shoulder most of the responsibility for the detailed practices and restrictions governing their intimate marital relationships. Until recently, they had little choice but to turn to male experts in Jewish law when they had potentially embarrassing practical questions.
But nine years ago, a revolution in Israeli women’s scholarship resulted in the first cadre of female certified consultants on precisely these matters, many of them English-speaking. Yet these “yoatzot halacha” (pronounced yo-ah-TSOTE or yo-EH-tset in the singular) were available to American women only by phone and in cyberspace.
|Dr. Deena Zimmerman has designed online courses on Jewish family law and health-related issues.|
Nishmat, the Jerusalem-based Center for Advanced Jewish Study for Women that trains the consultants, is turning its attention increasingly to placing graduates in American synagogue communities, including Teaneck and Englewood.
“Although we have a lot of information at jewishwomenshealth.org and yoatzot.org, as well as a toll-free hotline to yoatzot in Israel who speak English, having a yoetzet at a shul enables her to form relationships with the women of the community,” said Naomi Maryles, director of Nishmat’s Miriam Glaubach Center, which provides resources and programs across the continent on topics of taharat ha-mishpacha (Jewish family law) and women’s health.
“The best scenario is to be comfortable with someone on a personal level, so it would be ideal to have yoatzot on staff at shuls across North America,” said Maryles. “If you have a relationship, you’re more likely to ask questions and that’s always better than assuming the answer.”
Teaneck’s Cong. Rinat Yisrael has had Bergenfield resident Shayna Goldberg, a Nishmat graduate, on its staff for a year now. She divides her time between that synagogue and Englewood’s Cong. Ahavath Torah, where she just began her fourth year of service.
Rabbi Yosef Adler of Rinat Yisrael said the number of questions Goldberg fields from his female congregants is much greater than he used to receive. She also gets numerous calls from women who are not members of either shul, which Adler took as a clear sign that other rabbis might welcome a yoetzet in their congregations.
But both Adler and Ahavath Torah’s Rabbi Shmuel Goldin have met with more resistance to the idea than they expected.
“One of the objections seems to be the ‘slippery slope’ argument; if you allow this, who knows what the next step will be?” said Adler. “Also, [there is a perception that] it could somehow undermine the role of a rabbi who believes that everybody in his shul should feel comfortable asking him all types of questions.”
Goldin said he understands how these rabbis feel, but he thinks they’re mistaken. Having a yoetzet on staff “just enhances my relationship with women congregants because it shows them that their rabbi is sensitive to them,” Goldin said.
In addition to answering questions and concerns, synagogue-based yoatzot develop monthly programming for their communities, said Maryles. Adler said Goldberg’s lectures, on various topics of interest to women, are well-attended. Like other certified yoatzot, Goldberg completed two years of intensive study with rabbinic authorities at Nishmat, as well as training in modern medicine, psychology, gynecology, infertility, women’s health, family dynamics, and sexuality.
In an effort to make its expertise available to even more English-speaking women, Nishmat recently introduced an online course, available at www.yoatzot.org/marriagecompanion, as a comprehensive review of Jewish family laws and their intersection with health issues, intimacy, and marital harmony. It is intended for married couples of every age and stage of marriage, and at different levels of Jewish knowledge.
The new course follows Nishmat’s previous online curriculum designed specifically for brides (www.yoatzot.org/kallahcompanion). Both courses were created by yoetzet Deena Zimmerman, a Highland Park native, practicing physician, and author of the 2004 book “A Lifetime Companion to the Laws of Jewish Family Life.” Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, a well-known Israeli halachic authority, lent his supervision and guidance to the project.
Nishmat has also launched Jewish Women’s Health, an online resource that enables health-care professionals to provide culturally sensitive medical care to Jewish women and families. Created by Zimmerman, the site gives doctors the halachic information they need to work effectively with couples and their rabbis.
More than 60 articles and case studies at www.jewishwomenshealth.org address questions such as: How can infertility diagnosis and treatment be adapted to meet the needs of religiously observant couples? Is it safe for a woman to immerse in the mikvah while undergoing chemotherapy? What halachic considerations are involved in the choice of a contraceptive method?