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November 6, 2009

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PAGE 20A HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, NOVEMBER 06, 20C" By Dina Kraft JERUSALEM (JTA)--With Shabbat fast approaching, the sun was beginning to melt in the Jerusalem sky when the phone rang in Noa Lau's kitchen. On the line was a woman who spoke in a voice still raw from the grief of a recent mis- carriage. She was anxious to ask Lau, trained as a consul- tant on Jewish law, when she could again visit the mikvah, the Jewish ritual bath, and resume physical intimacywith her husband. Lau reviewed the relevant Jewish laws with the woman. providing her with an answer both compassionate and in accordance with halachah, or Jewish law. "At times like this I tell my- self. so what if I have cooked a bit less for Shabbat? I've helped calm and reassure someone who was distraught," said Lau, one of the first women to become a yoetzet halachah. Hebrew for consultant in Jew- ish law. Lau is the coordinator of an accreditation course for these consultants at Nishmat, an Or- thodox seminary for women. It is the only one of its kind in the Orthodox world, and most of its graduates live in Israel. Lau and the 60 other certi- fied yoatzot, as the consultants are known in Hebrew, have been become accustomed to women stopping them without Nishmat A yoetzet halachah, or Jew- ish legal counselor, answers a h6tline for women with questions relating to Jewish laws on sex and intimacy. notice, oftenwithawhispered, urgent question about Jewish law. Whether on their door- step, in the synagogue or at the supermarket, women have questions for which they ache for answers but are hesitant to ask a male rabbi, especially when it comes to family purity laws--the laws relating to sex. The emergence of women scholars serving as authorities in Jewish law marks something of a quiet revolution in an Orthodox world dominated by male authorities, where change has come slowly and incrementally. The emergence of the yoatzot--10 years have passed since Nishmat's pro- gram was inaugurated--also is a reflection of the advance- ment of women's religious education in the modern Orthodox world. For the women who turn to them, the yoatzot appear to be fulfilling a deep need. Shirley Kapon, a religiously observant doctor in Ramat Gan, met with a yoetzet sev- eral times as she prepared to marry a secular man. She wanted guidance on following family purity laws, and sought a trained woman's knowledge and depth of understanding. "I cannot tell you how many times people have said to me, 'Your yoatzot have saved me; "said Rabbanit Chana Henkin, dean of the program at Nishmat. "There is a lot of pain out there," Henkin said. "If you don't have a competent address, people will suffor. Women want ownership of their religious lives, andifthey don't understand what they are experiencing and don't understand the laws, they feel left out." Women who are too in- timidated to ask a halachic question often become overly severe in their observance for fear of violating Jewish law. That can lead to months or even years of suffering from unresolved medical or sexual questions some needlessly exacerbating fertility prob- lems, several yoatzot said. With Nishmat, women can ask yoatzot questions either in person, through a telephone hotline in tsrael. 02-640-4343. and from North America, 877-YOETZET--or via e-mail at Nishmat's Web site: According to traditional Jewish law. married women must refrain from physical in- timacy with their husbands for at least 12 days, from the onset of menstruation; the period is called niddah and ends with a visit to the mikvah. Irregular periods, bleeding and other anomalies and ambiguities prompt questions to Jewish legal authorities. "We are dealing with an area of halachah that affects the core of our marriages," said Atara Eis, a yoetzet in New York. "I can think of no areaofJewish law that impacts the family more, and having a proper dialogue in this area of law trulyaffects the bedrock of Jewish life, the family." Expanding women's leader- ship in this area is crucial, Eis said, and rabbis are beginning to understand that. "What happens if a woman's physiology causes that pe- riod of niddah to last for six months?" Henkin said. "Yoa- tzot are finding solutions." The yoetzet program focus- es on the study of family purity laws along with the other two fundamental areas of obser- vant Jewish life. Shabbat and kosher laws. Students in the program take an intensive two-year course Jewish law and women's health, studying fertility, sexuality, prenatal testing, menopause and dis- eases including breast cancer. The questions the yoatzot field range from women asking if a baby born to a non-Jewish surrogate will be considered Jewish to questions from observant Israeli backpackers traveling in India asking if the Ganges River qualifies as a kosher mikvah (a mikvah must be a natural body of water). Nishmat's yoatzot program has a $500,000 annual budget that is privately funded and helps cover the salaries of the women who work on the hot line and the Web site. Many of the yoatzot go on to work onavolunteerbasis; there are few opportunities for pay. Eis is one of the handful Of yoatzot in the United States who is paid for her work. She works for several congrega- tions in New York, including Manhattan's Lincoln Square Synagogue and Kehilath Je- shurun. She consults by phone and in person at synagogue gatherings on Shabbat. Eis says the idea of using a yoetzot is catching on. albeit slowly. "We are off to a decent start," she said. "We are changing from a culture of silence to a culture of discussion, and that takes time." In the fairly remote West Bank Jewish settlement of Hemdet, in the Jordan Valley, yoetzet Ruth Madar dispenses information and counsel to an increasing number of women. many of them the newly mar- ried wives of local yeshiva stu- dents. She receives no salary for her work. "Especially for young wom- en with no experience before marriage, there is a real lack of~nformation," Madar said of couples who have no physical contact until they marry. "Sometimes people just have very little knowledge about their own bodies," Lau said. "The focus on modesty education has become so cen- tral. Women are told to cover up and everything is forbidden, and then suddenly everything is permitted. The transitions can be very fast and sometimes it's very scary." During a recent morning at Nishmat, women studying in the program sat in study pairs poring over religious texts. Many are mothers, and several babies gurgled on blankets near the rows of desks or in the worfien's arms. One study pair, Judith Fogel and Sara Cheses, discussed a textwritten in the 16th century dealing with family purity. "I find it fascinating how early commentators under- stood the woman's body and that we are now applying that knowledge and using it today," Fogel said. "It's a wonderful opportunity we have now that women do have access to learning in a way that extends beyond knowledge of kashrut and Shabbat." @ By Steve Lipman New York Jewish Week Like thousands of men have done for hundreds of years, Rachel Druck is studying the prohibitions of Yom Kippur these days. In Aramaic, in the Talmud, in a yeshiva. At one of several folding tables set up in the sanctu- ary-library of the West End Synagogue, up a small flight of stairs from Amsterdam Avenue, Druck, 24, reviews a phrase from Tractate Yoma, a small Gemara guide at her side. Across the table sits Robin Weintraub, her havruta, or learning partner. At other tables in the room, encircled by shelves ofclassicaland modern Jewish texts, sit about two dozen other students, most of them also in their 20s, also paired off, also interpreting the words of Yoma. It is a typical morning at Yeshivat Hadar. The yeshiva, which ran sum- merlong learning sessions for the last three years, opened year-round last month, bill- ing itself as the only full-time, egalitarian yeshiva in the country. Meeting in rented space in a Reconstructionist synagogue, it runs morning- to-evening Classes and havruta review sessions five days a week, with 18 full-time stu- dents, or fellows, all of whom receive tuition grants. Several men and women join in part time. The institution of advanced Jewish learning is a "core pro- gram" of Mechon Hadar, the umbrella group for a network of non-denominational prayer groups around the country launched three years ago. The yeshiva, which held a formal dedication ceremony this week at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, which is Reform, is the latest sign of an invigorated segment of the Jewish community that is seeking Jewish connections while shunning traditional denominational identities. "The big-box denomina- tional labels don't accurately describe how people are lead- ing their Jewish lives," says Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, a Jewish Theological Seminary ordain- ee who founded Kehilat Hadar in Manhattan eight years ago and has helped shape the entire Hadar movement. Only the presence of women. who learn and teach and daven as equals with men, marks Yeshivat Hadar as different from a traditional, Orthodox yeshiva, Kaunfer says. Same schedule, same books, same principles, same emphasis on text study. "Ninety-eight per- cent of the goal is a traditional yeshiva goal." The accents are Sephardic, not the Ashkenazi pronuncia- tion heard in most Orthodox yeshivot. And the ambiance is quieter, with little of the shouting that characterizes a typical Orthodoxbeitmidrash. The men all wear kipot, usually large, colorful, knit ones. Some of the women also wear kipot; most wear pants. The yeshiva dress code bars only such inappropriate garb as shorts or jeans. As in a traditional yeshiva, Kaunfer or one of the other rashei yeshiva-Rabbi Ethan Tucker or Rabbi Shai Held or Talmud instructor Avital Campbell Hochstein sits at one of the tables near the bima to answer the questions of students reviewing the pre- vious day's class or preparing for that day's. The students. Kaunfer says, all consider themselves ob- servant, but not necessarily Orthodox. The food served at meals is kosher; the prayer book used at worship services is a "traditional siddur." Neither a baal teshuvah (returnee to the faith) center nor an ordination-granting ye- shiva, neither adult education course nor academic learning center like university-based Judaic studies programs, Yeshivat Hadar is similar in focus to such Israeli institu- tions as the Hartman Institute or the Pardes Institute, which are open to men and women, without a denominational identification or political orientation. "We're a religious commu- nity; we're a Torah institution," Held says. The yeshiva's goal: to give the students the skills to learn and interpret texts by themselves; an Aramaic- only Gemara is used, not the ArtScroll or Steinsaltz ver- sions that incorporate English translations. Making decisions about practices that are in accordance with normative Jewish law and with contemporary egalitarian- ism is "not as simple as opening a Shulchan Oruch," the Code of Jewish Law that serves as a basic reference for many ob- servant Jews, Kaunfer says. The yeshiva's students, he says, are encouraged to seek their own answers, in consultation with their teachers at the yeshiva, not to simplyask a rabbinic authority to make rulings for them. "Our gedolim [recog- nized authorities] are the rabbis of the Talmud and the Mishna." Kaunfer says the yeshiva's brand of egalitarian learning and praying has a firm halachic basis cited on its Web site hal- Although discouraged in traditional Orthodox circles, the idea of men and women learning together, of women studying Talmud in the first place, of women leading a prayer service and wearing tallit and tefillin, is part of what draws Yeshivat Hadar's students. "When I was young, I dreamed that a place like this would exist," says Druck, a Barnard graduate who grew up in a Modern Orthodox home in New Jersey and attended a Modern Orthodox day school. "Here I can come and daven" at an individual pace without being urged to keep up with the rest of the congregation, she says. Here, "I feel I can ask" the probing questions that once earned her teachers' or classmates' rebuke, "without being labeled a troublemaker." Yeshivat Hadar is not an institution that follows hala- cha although its practice is egalitarian, Druck tells critics. "It's halachic and egalitarian." "This for me is a kiruv [outreach] organization," says Jaime Guarnaccia, 22, another New Jersey native, a recent Harvard graduate from a non-observant family who took part in educational activities sponsored by main- stream Orthodox outreach organizations but longed for something with a more liberal, more-egalitarian ap- proach. "This is a year of shaping myself [spiritually]," says Chana Kupetz, 21, an Israeli who came to the yeshiva after completing her army service. She grew up, Orthodox, in a West Bank settlement and attended Orthodox schools, but says it was hard to find a community that shared her egalitarian ideals. The emphasis of the yeshiva, which sponsored similar all-day summer learning programs the last three years, is Torah rshma. Torah for its own sake, to pro- duce an educated laity, for Jews who can open a siddur or Tan- ach or Gemara. As a condition of acceptance to the full-time program, students, who take part in mandatoryweekly social action activities--like visiting people in hospitals and nursing homes--pledge to become ac- tive participants in Jewish life when they return to their home communities and commit to carrying out specific projects asaconditionofreceivingtheir stipend. After completing the nine-month curriculum, the fellows will head to graduate school or to typical jobs in business or academia or the professions, not necessarily to careers in the rabbinate or Jewish education. The purpose is "to grow as'Jews, to grow in learning," Held says. "We want our students," Tucker says, "to be the back- bones of their Jewish com- munities." The yeshiva's initial $1.1 million budget--it pays for five full-time faculty members, as well as part-time instructors and frequent guest lecturers, and for student stipends-- comes from a combination of foundations and private donors, including UJA-Feder- ation of New York, Bikkurim, the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Avi Chai Foundation and the Covenant Foundation. "Hadar r'~ses Jewish educa- tionalstandards foryoungadults and creates an intellectual, non- threatening environment that fosters excitement about Jewish life," says OraWeinberg, planning executive for UJA-Federation's Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal. The yeshiva "attracts a very impressive student body. It's led by some oftl~e most impres- sive individuals dotting Jewish life today," says Steven Bayme, director of contemporary Jew- ish life at the American Jewish Committee. He calls Yeshivat Hadar a hallmark ofavibrant Jewish community...opening up the door of Jewish learning in a modern context. These things are to be celebrated." The growth of Hadar min- yanim and similar non-de- nominational prayer groups is documented. The future of an institution like Yeshivat Hadar, still in its first full-time year, is yet to be determined. "The question is still out," says Guamaccia---'Is thisaboutique program or is it a movement?" The rabbis leading the yeshiva say they will judge success by the appearance of similar schools, not just by the growth andpossibleacquisi- tion of its own building of Yeshivat Hadar itself. "I wish there were competi- tion," Kaunfer says. "I believe in the model more than I do in the institution." Druck calls her time at Ye- sh'ivat Hadar"ayear of explora- tion for me." After a month of praying and learning five days a weekwith like-minded people, she says she has gained an ap- preciation for her heritage that her day schools did not provide. I m beginning to see Judaism not just as a series oflaws but as a spiritual practice," she says. Steve Lipman is a staff writer for the New York Jewish Week from which this article was reprinted by permission. You can reach him at steve@