Rabbanit Shoval’s passion for women’s education

Rabbanit Shoval’s passion for women’s education

Kushner Talmud teacher now directs leadership institute in Jerusalem

Women study at the Laulicht Beit Midrash at the Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem. (Jared Bernstein)
Women study at the Laulicht Beit Midrash at the Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem. (Jared Bernstein)

When Chamutal Ariel was growing up in an Orthodox community in Israel, there were many rabbis in her school. They were all called Rabbi. There were also female Judaic studies teachers, but even if they learned Torah for many years, they were addressed as Mrs. or Miss.

That “sounded just wrong” to Chamutal, she said. She felt these women should have had a title that gave their students an “understanding that this person had learned so much Torah.”

Now Rabbanit Chamutal Ariel Shoval, a graduate of the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership in Jerusalem, is grateful to have had the opportunity to earn that title. Programs of this type are a relatively new and fairly uncommon phenomenon in the Orthodox community, she said. For the last two years, Rabbanit Shoval taught Talmud and halacha — Jewish law — at the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston. She was recently appointed the WIHL’s new director and will begin that role officially in September.

At one point the title rabbanit was used as the Hebrew word for rebbetzin, but “in a way, it’s a new term now,” Rabbanit Shoval said. “It’s very much accepted in Israel now that rabbanit doesn’t mean rebbetzin, like it used to. I feel like in the past maybe 10 years there was a shift of rebbetzins not using this term anymore, or not using it as much. The term has become a title for women who learn halacha thoroughly and for many years, and who know Talmud and halacha well.

“In Israel it’s become a title that is connected only to the woman, not to her husband at all.”

Rabbanit Shoval’s husband, Dr. Ronen Shoval, is not a rabbi. He earned a doctorate in philosophy and was a visiting fellow and lecturer at Princeton University for the last two years.

Rabbanit Chamutal Shoval

The time she and her family spent in Springfield “was the most amazing adventure and experience,” Rabbanit Shoval said. “When we were looking for a school for our children” — the couple has five daughters ranging in age from 6 to 16 — “I met Rabbi Rubin and I was so impressed.” Rabbi Eliezer Rubin is the head of school at RKYHS and at the school’s elementary division, the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy. “I took the tour at Kushner and I said to him, ‘This is where I want my children to learn,’ and he said, ‘So why don’t you come and work here as well?’

“After looking at so many schools, we felt like Kushner was home. And it was an amazing opportunity, so I decided to join the team there.”

Rabbanit Shoval loved working at RKYHS. “I loved getting to know the families, and my students,” she said. “I felt so much at home at Kushner, mainly because I think the teachers and staff members just see the kids, actually see their needs, and their differences, and their passions. It’s not only about the curriculum and teaching, but it’s also about connecting to the students.”

The WIHL is part of Ohr Torah Stone, described on its website as “a Modern Orthodox movement of 32 institutions and programs making a transformative impact on Jewish education, leadership and outreach worldwide.” The program is housed at Midreshet Lindenbaum, a seminary for women in the Ohr Torah network.

Rabbanit Shoval’s new role is a homecoming of sorts. She first studied at Midreshet Lindenbaum after completing sheirut leumi — national service. “Ever since I was 20 and I walked into the beit midrash in Lindenbaum, I was very passionate about it,” she said. “I always wanted to learn Torah.”

After that initial stint at Lindenbaum, she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in communications, both at Hebrew University. Next, she worked in television, at Channel 1, for about six years. The experience “taught me a lot about the media world in Israel, and I got to see different angles of the Israeli society,” Rabbanit Shoval said. “There were maybe five other religious people in the building, and I got to work with members of the secular community in Israel and to see the people who are very much influencing it.”

Rabbanit Evron teaches at the WIHL. (Jared Bernstein)

When Channel 1 was reorganized, she decided “to go back to the beit midrash to learn Torah,” she said. She felt “that’s my calling and my dream” and saw “a good opportunity to change the course of my professional life and go back to my passion.”

So she returned to Midreshet Lindenbaum and joined the WIHL program. It’s a rigorous five-year course of study that teaches the same curriculum that male rabbinical students learn in Israel, Rabbanit Shoval said. Its students take exams that are equivalent to those that male rabbinical students take. “These tests were way harder” than the ones she took for her undergraduate and graduate degrees, she said.

In some of the subjects, program participants take oral tests. “Sitting in front of rabbis and being asked questions was very stressful, but also in a way it was empowering, because we were debating halacha. Historically, I don’t think this would ever have occurred in Jewish history, that women are sitting in front of rabbis and answering difficult halachic questions and demonstrating their knowledge, which is incredible.”

She thinks it is important that graduates of the program use the title rabbanit. “We’re not just honoring them, we’re also honoring the Torah,” she said. “I want girls to see that there are women in these positions, that they learned halacha for many years.”

During her time in the program, Rabbanit Shoval started teaching at Midreshet Lindenbaum, and she started writing. “I think the first phase of opening the gates of the beit midrash for women has been done — women are learning,” she said. She thinks the next step is for women to take a more active role in writing about halacha, to become “part of the Jewish bookshelf.” She has articles posted on Sefaria and published in a number of journals. After completing the program in 2021, she led the Women’s Beit Midrash in Efrat.

At RKYHS, the school gathers together on Friday mornings. Each week, a different rabbi on the staff addresses the student body. Rabbanit Shoval was the only woman in the Talmud department at the school, and she was the only woman included in the Friday morning speaking rotation. “I had a few students tell me that they always wanted a rabbinical figure that they could look up to,” she said. “I have five girls. Growing up, I was learning from amazing rabbis, but it took a while for our generation to really have women in these positions. I want my daughters and my students to be able to look up to people and say, ‘This is who I want to be like.’ I don’t intend for all my daughters or students to be rabbaniot, but I do want them to have important and significant female role models in their lives who they can turn to.

“I think it’s important to show our girls, and all our students, that women are serious about their Jewish identity, that there are women who are very familiar with Talmud and halacha and know how to answer halachic questions. I think it’s important, particularly for girls, to feel there are women they can talk to and reach out to for halachic guidance. I think it’s really important that our young adults have both male and female role models, for them to see that it’s really important to aspire to be a doctor or an engineer or a lawyer, all these things, but also to be serious about your Jewish identity.”

Rabbanit Shoval also has been serving as a scholar in residence on behalf of Ohr Torah Stone and has had the opportunity to visit many communities across North America.

So far, the WIHL has about 25 graduates, and 14 students are enrolled in the program now. Rabbanit Shoval hopes that more women will join it, and she hopes to see alumnae in positions throughout Israeli society. “I want them to be teaching but also in positions in the community,” she said. “My chavruta” — study partner — “leads a community in Israel.”

Other graduates are writing about halacha, Rabbanit Shoval continued. Some hold halachic or community-building positions in communities. Many are teaching. A few are working as spiritual and halachic leaders in middle schools and high schools. “This is a position that used to be open only to men in Israel, so I think it’s amazing that our alumnae are in these positions,” she said.

Another graduate runs a program that provides support and halachic guidance for religious female soldiers. Rabbanit Shoval sees a real need for this type of guidance. “A lot of the young students at Lindenbaum who go to the army need people to reach out to,” she said. “A lot have been calling me and asking questions,” she said. She hopes graduates will start to serve in positions of halachic leadership in the IDF and be able to provide this type of support to soldiers on a broader basis. She also thinks that in a few years, the panels that give the oral tests in the WIHL program, which now are made up only of rabbis, also will include women who are well versed in halacha.

Rabbanit Shoval’s grandmother recently told her that she had never had the opportunity to learn Talmud. When she was growing up, it wasn’t something women did. And she said that she’s very proud that her granddaughter not only learned Talmud and halacha at an advanced level, but that she is now going to be helping other women have this opportunity.

Rabbanit Shoval is well aware that learning Talmud and halacha in depth is an opportunity women did not have until relatively recently. She is humbled and excited about her new position, she said, and she is looking forward to helping to expand leadership opportunities for women.

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