Women answering women’s questions

Women answering women’s questions

First U.S.-trained yoatzot halacha graduates in Israel, return home to help

The five new yoatzot halacha and the program’s founder, Rabbanit Chana Henkin, are surrounded by prominent
Orthodox rabbis at their graduation in Manhattan. Nishmat center for advanced jewish study for women

In a historic first, the first five U.S.-educated “yoatzot halacha” (female consultants in Jewish law) were certified by rabbinic authorities in Israel in August, and graduated on October 27 in a ceremony in Manhattan.

Three of the women grew up in Bergen County.

Their certification as yoatzot halachat (pronounced yo-ah-TSOTE, or yo-EH-tset in singular) authorizes them to advise women on the detailed practices governing taharat hamishpacha – the code of law relating to the physical marital relationship.

Until Chana Henkin, head of Jerusalem’s Nishmat Center for Advanced Jewish Study for Women, founded the yoetzet halacha program in 1997, the only resource available to Orthodox wives for answering personal questions about menstruation, pregnancy, menopause, and mikvah – the ritual bath – were male rabbis.

Now, the existence of 90 women trained in these laws – as well as in gynecology, obstetrics, fertility, lactation, psychology, sexuality, family dynamics, and genetics – has caused something of a revolution.

Records show a sharp rise in the number of inquiries from women in synagogues or communities that have employed yoatzot halacha now or in the past. That list includes Rinat Yisrael and Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, Ahavath Torah in Englewood, and Kesher Synagogue in Tenafly.

“Over 200,000 questions have been answered through the hot line [in Israel], online [at yoatzot.org] and in communities,” said Yoetzet Halacha Atara Eis, director of the U.S. Yoatzot Halacha Fellows Program for Nishmat’s Miriam Glaubach Center. “In 14 years” – since the first class graduated – “it’s amazing to see the level of success this program has had. Communities are demanding this.”

Jerusalem was the sole address for the training of yoatzot halacha until requests from many American Jewish locales prompted Henkin to pilot a U.S. program in 2011, based at Teaneck’s Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls.

Nechama Friedman Price of Bergenfield, 33, has been teaching advanced courses in Jewish family law for 10 years at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women. “I always wanted to do the yoetzet program, but it was in Israel,” said Ms. Price, who grew up in Teaneck and is expecting her fourth child.

She therefore jumped at the chance to become certified locally, even though it was more difficult at this point in her life.

“The balancing act we had to do was hard, but it made the experience more powerful because we were focused on getting the most out of our time in the program,” said Ms. Price, who delivered the graduation address. “Now we are all getting the opportunity to help the women in our communities, which we would not have had without earning the title.”

In July, Ms. Price sat on a panel of yoatzot halacha presenting a community program in Teaneck. Hundreds of attendees asked so many questions that the evening stretched to three hours. Since then, Ms. Price has taken 160 calls for halachic advice from local residents, and she hopes to be hired by a shul or community in New Jersey.

Dena Katz Block, 27, was intrigued by the yoetzet halacha program when she was a high school student at Ma’ayanot, where she now teaches Talmud and U.S. history and directs student programming. After a year of study in Israel, an undergraduate degree at Barnard College and a master’s in Talmud from Stern College, however, she could not take two years off to study in Jerusalem.

“When they opened the program here, I was ecstatic to be accepted,” she said. “I was able to combine my love of learning with giving back to the community and helping women and families.”

She is the official yoetzet at the Great Neck Synagogue and at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun and Mount Sinai Jewish Center in Manhattan. She lives in Washington Heights but visits the other locations periodically for Shabbat. She answers questions via phone and email, and gives lectures about once a month.

“From the opening event I ran in Great Neck, it was apparent that women have so much on their minds to talk about with taharat hamishpacha, and need an outlet to discuss it,” Ms. Block said. “People who have called and come to my programs thank me so profusely and have told me how they weren’t so comfortable asking these kinds of questions to their rabbi.”

Englewood-raised Tova Warburg Sinensky, 32, is serving as yoetzet halacha in greater Philadelphia, based in Kohelet Yeshiva High School’s Community Beit Midrash. She chairs Kohelet’s Talmud department and mentors new teachers.

Ms. Sinensky, who is married to a rabbi, graduated from the Moriah and Frisch Schools and Stern College and received her master’s degree in secondary Jewish education from Yeshiva University. During two years of training to be a mentor in the Jewish New Teacher Program, she said, “I gained many communication skills that helped me as a rebbetzin and continue to assist me as a yoetzet. These skills include asking clarifying questions, as well as ensuring that women feel comfortable and understood.”

While she and her husband were serving the Albert Einstein College of Medicine Synagogue, she taught family law to many brides and fielded related questions. “I began to see that the answers I provided impacted not only women’s halachic observance, but also their emotional well-being, physical well-being, and marriages,” she said.

When she heard about Nishmat opening a certification course in Teaneck, Ms. Sinensky was drawn in immediately. “I wanted to provide as many women as possible with the opportunity to interact with a female halachic advisor regarding this very personal and sensitive area of Jewish life; I wanted all women to feel comfortable communicating their needs and receive the counsel and assistance that they needed,” she said.

The two other graduates are Lisa Septimus, the newly appointed yoetzet halacha of the Five Towns on Long Island, and Avital Weissman, yoetzet halacha at the Young Israel of Plainview, New York, where she is also the rebbetzin.

Rabbi Kenneth Auman is dean of the U.S. Fellows program. The new yoatzot traveled to Jerusalem for their certification tests, administered at Nishmat by rabbis Yehuda Henkin, Yaakov Warhaftig, Yitzhak Halevi, and Yosef Tzvi Rimon.

Ms. Eis, who earned her certification in Israel and recently made aliyah, notes that Ma’ayanot has two yoatzot on its faculty – Dena Block and Shoshana Samuels.

“It makes an impression on high school students to see women in their 30s going back to Torah study,” she said. “Nishmat has developed a wonderful relationship with Ma’ayanot, and they generously agreed to house the program. It makes sense geographically and it’s a wonderful role-modeling opportunity.”

The American course meets full time over three summers and eight hours per week during the school year, with supplementary monthly lectures.

A second cohort of six American Yoetzet Halacha fellows began the first year of study with an intensive week of studies at Nishmat in Israel this summer.

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