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Blazing a trail:  pioneering women in the religious world

The Ohr Torah Stone network is at the forefront of change in every facet of the women’s Torah revolution: offering Torah studies and halakha instruction for women, freeing agunot and fostering professional development.  “The mother of all midrashot,” Midreshet Lindenbaum has opened up new campuses in Lod and Karmiel.  As the Torah speaks of the Four Sons, we will speak in praise of four women leaders.

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Rabbanit Devorah Evron

Director of the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership at Midreshet Lindenbaum.  56-years-old, psychodrama therapist, married to Yuval, mother of four and grandmother of four. 

Page one scanThings that happen off center stage are potentially the most interesting.  It is there, far from the madding crowd and society’s prevailing norms and fixed patterns of thought and behavior, that wonderful things can happen.  When Rabbanit Devorah Evron, director of the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership at Midreshet Lindenbaum tells me that the program she leads (which trains women Torah scholars) is attended by women from both the liberal and the conservative end of the religious spectrum – I am surprised and deeply excited. 

If I were to sketch this spectrum as a geographical map, I would say that the program is attended by women from Jerusalem, Gush Etzion and Modi’in on the liberal end, and women from Drom Har Chevron and Samaria on the conservative end.  Do they actually learn together and rub shoulders?  The answer is a definite yes, as implausible as it may sound. 

“An integral part of our role,” says Rabbanit Evron, “is to train an assortment of women who will serve in diverse communities.  There is no need for them to be homogeneous and in full agreement about everything in order to be full partners.  We have a wide range of women coming in with very different worldviews, and our aim is not to make them all think alike.  One of the most beautiful – and most important – things that is happening here is that the group of women undergoes a process of meaningful learning as a group, and the women – who come from very different worlds – continue to stay in touch.  I believe with all my heart that there is huge potential here and a real opportunity for bridging social gaps and chasms.  Our graduates meet once a month and share news from their respective communities.  The fact that different places want to get to know each other and engage in real dialogue is a huge thing.  We must encourage a discourse of mutual responsibility, and margin societies can provide the impetus for drawing the mainstream closer.  Through the world of Torah learning for women one can create a whole new reality.”

What does the program aim for?

“The program has been in existence for the past ten years, but has undergone changes.  It used to be a program that focused on imparting knowledge in the realm of halakha only; today the program aims to impart knowledge and engage students in study that will lead to action. In other words, train women so they can go back to their respective communities and become agents of change among the Jewish People.  We give them the necessary tools to serve as leaders in the community, so that each can focus on her area of specialty with her unique worldview.  The women study Issur V’heter (the Jewish laws of kashrut), the laws of Niddah (laws of family purity), as well as the laws of Shabbat, mourning, Jewish matrimony and blessings.  All subjects are learned comprehensively and on the highest possible level, and at the end of the course of study the women are certified as spiritual leaders with license to rule on matters of halakha .  In conjunction with the halakha studies, the women are trained in leadership skills, for example how to write Torah sermons and speak before an audience. They also broaden their knowledge in related fields of study such as medicine and halakha, marital relationships, sexuality etc.”

How many women a year are we talking about?

“There are currently ten women in the program, each of whom is in a different stage of the program.  We also have eight graduates who have completed the full program.  There are some graduates who have completed only specific parts of the program, and are currently active in specific fields – education, offering halakhic counseling to organizations and engaging in meaningful activity in the community, especially through Torah lectures they give.  We hope to expand the program further to encompass additional positions in the community and in public institutions.”

What then is the plan? To replace the men?

Of course not.  I would like to build a society that understands that women Torah scholars are a huge resource and asset; a society that makes sure that in every community there be a woman scholar serving alongside a man.  It doesn’t have to be an “either or situation”, where we take out the men and replace them with women.  On the contrary – I would like to expand the resources for the good of the public, and have a woman leader serving alongside a man in the community: a male rabbi and a woman rabbanit and schools that have Torah figures comprised of men and women.  I think everyone agrees that men can teach in midrashot, and I would like it to be just as clear that men who study in yeshiva are not only permitted to accept a scholarly feminine perspective, but that it is highly recommended that they do.

“There is a need for women who will both learn and teach, and men, too, have to listen to the voice of women in the world of Torah.  Many men consult with me about the issue of mourning – not because there aren’t enough men but because there is a desire to hear multiple voices and worldviews.  These processes arise from the field, and the more authentic the process is the less opposition it will evoke.  In the past I did come across opposition, but as soon as we engaged in dialogue and people were willing to listen to each other, I was able to explain what it is that we do.  For example, I explained how we would be able to help a high school girl share a personal problem, which she would be unwilling to share with the school’s male rabbi, and why it is crucial to give her the opportunity to share certain things with a woman.  I think the wisdom is to turn the conflict into dialogue, and then good things start to happen.

Halakha contains an inner equilibrium that allows one to move forward in the right direction.  Halakha never presents one single option.  There is always a broad range of opinions which can be contemplated and deliberated and mulled over.  At the end of any halakhic voyage one can ask what would be the right ruling at this point in time, and then one gains a foothold on the precise spot that could bear the weight of the progress forward.”

Change happens slowly.  Does this detract from the hopes you foster for this program?

“I’m very optimistic.  There is a process underway that is embedded in the world of Torah and is moving forward at the pace of halakha due to the devotion of men and women.  The Jewish People examine and evaluate every issue through the prism of eternity, not of seventy years.  I am certain that many things will continue to happen when I am long gone, and even now we are witness to many moving things that are transpiring.  For instance, not only in schools like Ohr Torah Stone is there an appointed woman rabbanit, but even in places like Ulpenat Lehava in Kedumim, or Ulpenat Kfar Pines, which is headed by a woman.  This trend is sure to grow, and more and more women will be sought after to fill educational and Torah-related positions, and this is only one example.  Do you think that when I initially set forth on this journey, I imagined having the conversation we are having now?

“Let me tell you a story that exemplifies what I wish to convey:  My uncle, who lives in the USA, used to have a group that learned Talmud every Shabbat.  Since there was no eruv, the learners would bring all their books to the place of study before Shabbat.  Slowly but surely, the members of the group aged and their vision deteriorated, so they would also collect their glasses before Shabbat and leave them in the learning area.  And then they started passing away.  The Talmud books were returned to their families, but the glasses remained in a special box.  Till this day the box is still there and contains the glasses of all the learners in the past and in the present.  When my uncle heard that I am studying Torah, he said to me:  ‘I understand that you too want to add your pair of glasses to the box.’  And that’s the point.  We would like to add our own perspective, our glasses, to the box.  We are not seeking to change the box or create another box, we just want to join the existing box.”

Tamar Oderberg

An attorney at Yad La’isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline.  36 years old, married to Amichai and mother of four.  Lives in Oranit.

scan from newspaper“I was first introduced to Ohr Torah Stone through the Hadas program at Midreshet Ohr Torah Lindenbaum,” says Att. Tamar Oderberg, graduate of cohort 3 of the program which offers a combination of midrasha studies and army service to organic groups in the different units.  “Twenty years ago, a religious girl who wanted to serve in the army was either considered to be a rebel or somebody who wants to forsake the religious way of life,” she goes on to say.  “When my homeroom teacher heard that I was considering army service, she showed me a set of guidelines written by the Rabbinate of Israel prohibiting army service for girls.  That was the frame of mind back then.  I knew for certain I wanted to be drafted, but it hardly stemmed from an urge to rebel; it came from the knowledge that it is where I belong.  I loved the Ulpana and the different frameworks it offered, but I knew the right combination could be found.  Today the IDF is much more accommodating to religious women; the entire approach has been greatly upgraded.”

These days Oderberg works as lawyer at the Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center – Yad La’isha – which operates under the auspices of Ohr Torah Stone and provides legal representation to agunot (women “chained” in marriage) and mesoravot-get (women being denied a divorce), as well as to women who are in the middle of divorce proceedings.  “When I finished my army service and the midrasha’s advanced studies program, I went to study law.  At first, I worked for a law firm specializing in banking laws, but it didn’t take me long to figure out it was not my cup of tea.  A few years ago I started working at Yad La’isha.  Most of the workers there at the time were toanot rabbaniyot (women advocates for the rabbinical court), and, they were looking for a lawyer to join their team because family law involves not only the rabbinical courts but civil courts as well.  When somebody files for divorce parallel proceedings ensue in both places:  the rabbinical court is in charge of the actual divorce process, while the family court deals with alimony.”

Even today there are those who would view your work in Yad La’isha as an act of defiance or dissidence, no?

I think the opposite is true.  I still believe in playing by the rules, and I am actually a firm believer – perhaps I am naïve – in formal frameworks and tradition.  After all, it was the Torah that safeguarded us throughout the generations.  Our approach at Yad La’isha is not to oppose the system.  We do not paint our faces in war paint and go on a rampage to fight the rabbinical courts. It’s not our thing.  We understand that this is the current system, so it would be best to join forces and work together to bring about the desired changes.  There are halakhic solutions for all sorts of situations; one only has to know how to put them into effect.”

And when you see an aguna, a woman chained in marriage as a result of Jewish law, and yet the woman remains strongly committed to the world of Torah – how does it affect you?

“Sometimes I, too, feel astonished and think to myself ‘How does she do it?’  There are women who evoke so much respect and admiration.  Some women are in awful situations and still insist that a halakhic solution be found for them and that the battle continue without crossing any lines or breaking any rules.  I stand awed at such women and muster all my energy and strength to help them.”

Recently we have witnessed a change of attitude with regards to “unchaining” agunot from the bonds of marriage, and in some cases halakhic tools that had never been used before were put to use.  How did that happen?

“First and foremost, I am certain this change is mainly due to the fact that women are now part of the system which had been controlled solely by men up till now. One can only imagine what happens when a woman arrives in the rabbinical court and has to stand before three rabbinical judges, all of whom are male, and explain to them what went wrong in her marriage, while her husband stands there all the while with his lawyer.  The minute women arrived on the scene equipped with vast halakhic knowledge, the picture changed.  At first people raised an eyebrow, but once they realized that we are well-versed and fluent in halakhic jargon, we gained the court’s respect and esteem and everybody realized that something positive was underway. Yad La’isha created a change in the system’s perception:  the time has come to take the 50% that have been ignored till now into account.

“Those who have been around for longer can tell you about women who were denied their gets for thirty years.  Today one rarely hears of a woman who is stuck in the system for so long.  The minute one suggests feasible solutions, the system can no longer turn a blind eye.  So there is a change of perception after all, even if it is slow going.  One can compare these changes to changes that have taken place in Torah learning for women.  Whoever would have thought it possible in the past, and today Torah learning for women is becoming more and more available and popular.  Perhaps things are moving slightly slower when it comes to divorce matters, but one can see the changes and feel the impact.”

Do you understand why people object to you and other similar organizations?

“I try to understand.  I believe that the Torah is ours and halakha is ours.  The expression ‘Torat Chayim,’ the Torah of life, is not just a cliché.  It’s the truth.  I believe we can move forward within the framework of halakha without breaking the rules or crossing any lines.  Within the boundaries of halakha there is a solution for every situation.  I can understand why some are wary, or why some might claim we may be undermining the family unit or the value of the family.  I would never take anyone who wants to restore their marriage lightly; however, sometimes one also has to understand that divorce is the only solution.  I am unwilling to accept the notion that “there is nothing to be done, this woman will have to remain an aguna forever.”  I find it harder to relate to that more than anything else. No stone must be left unturned in search for a solution.

“In Judaism particularly, more so than in other religions, the notion of ’till death do us part’ does not exist. Divorce is a built-in option.  And it’s okay, it may happen, the Torah understands that.  When somebody takes the option of divorce and uses it for extortion or to set unreasonable conditions – that’s a terrible misdeed.  It’s something that must be fixed and can’t be overlooked.  Moreover, it’s something that should preferably be fixed from the inside. 

“One might say that this has been something that has concerned me ever since I participated in the Hadas program.  In the past, Torah study for women was a taboo, and today it’s not only possible, but even permissible and recommended.  So even if we have to fight the rabbinical system and make the voice of women heard, this, too, is permissible and recommended.  There is no need to break the framework, one can operate from within and do remarkable things.”

Kinneret Kum-Fensterheim

Major (res.) in unit 8200, director of the Mamriot program, 32 years old, married to Rabbi Gedalia, mother of four, lives in Sde-Ya’akov.

scan of page 3A woman with a head covering and a skirt and four kids at home is not a common sight in the IDF Intelligence Corps’ famous 8200 unit.  “When I joined the military, I saw very few women around me,” says Kinneret Kum-Fensterheim.  “Later, the same was true – as I moved up in rank, there were always very few women in the room.  People were very surprised at the combination: a religious woman who is also a mother and a hardcore intelligence officer.”

Fensterheim completed her compulsory service about a year ago, ranking as major, and does her reserves duty in the unit.  “When I chose to leave active duty this, too, did not go unnoticed and evoked numerous remarks.  People could not believe I was actually leaving when a promotion in rank was already in the pipelines as well as offers of senior positions in the unit.  However, I felt it was not right for me both personally and in terms of the family.  I left from a place of power.  I did a lot for the Jewish nation and put to use the vigor given to me by God.  But there is also great power in knowing when to stop.” 

She describes her year in the Hadas program at Midreshet Lindenbaum as a formative year.  “Until then I was used to doing many things because I was told to or had to, and then I discovered the world of halakha and faith from the inside.  It was a year of deep and profound examination, and I emerged from it as one who feels completely at home in the world of Torah study.  It was a year that filled me with new strengths and energies.  I will go so far as to say that the decision to join the army and take on a meaningful position in the unit and to continue onto the officers’ course and serve in senior positions stems from that single year of Torah study.  And throughout my army service, every time I faced a difficulty, I knew I had a place to fall back on.  I took some weighty decisions, and the very certainty that my Jewish and halakhic worlds were sound – gave me a lot of strength.

“I am not a Torah scholar, but I feel very much at home in the world of Torah and halakha.  The halls of Torah study and the canon of Torah are an integral part of my life.  The period in which I studied in Midreshet Lindenbaum, as well as the time in which I studied for my undergraduate degree and combined it with a day of Torah studies in Migdal Oz, turned Torah study into a part of my routine and helped me build an inner sanctuary from which I draw strength to take difficult decisions.”

Only 3.6 percent of women who choose to engage in scientific and technological fields are graduates of the religious-public school system, compared with 7.1 percent of women who studied in non-religious public schools. What Fensterheim did in the army as a pioneering woman and revolutionist, she is now trying to do for other religious girls in the hope of changing the overall picture. 

“Surely it cannot be that so few religious girls are found suitable to work in technological professions,” she claims.  “It is true for the overall woman population, but is more prominent among religious women.  The number of religious girls who choose a technological track is about half of their non-religious counterparts.  The scores achieved on the meitzav tests (national assessment tests in Math, Science and in English) in religious high schools and ulpanot are high, yet how many girls choose to major in technology-related subjects?  How many go on to advanced studies in these fields?  And how many actually work in these fields?  It clearly has nothing to do with competence; it’s all about gearing them towards what is most accepted, a sort of social streaming.”

Today Fensterheim heads the Mamriot program which aims to realize the full potential of religious girls in technological fields.  Mamriot is an informal training program, customized for girls from the religious-nationalist sector, and an initiative of the Rashi Foundation’s Cyber Education Center and the National Cyber Directorate at the Prime Minister’s Office.  The program trains girls from the Religious-Zionist sector throughout their high school years, and gears them towards meaningful national service in cyber-related professions followed by integration into the hi-tech world. 

“Fourteen years ago I majored in Computer Science in high school, and it opened up many opportunities for me because I was consequently summoned by the army, and was offered interesting positions.  When I left the army at the age of 31 all doors were open to me – startup and hi-tech companies, for instance – and not because I am in any way unique but because my parents had channeled me towards areas that suited me and also because I learned in the technology track in high school.  The 11th and 12th graders who learn in the Mamriot program study cybernetics and technology on a high level in the afternoons, and are prepared for meaningful service in the numerous fields of technology.  In the aim of making it possible for the girls to put their talents to good use and create new opportunities for themselves, new National Service and military tracks have been opened especially for them.”

Do you see any change from when you were a newly-drafted soldier to what is happening now?

“Even now there aren’t many women in these fields, but in our specific unit change is apparent.  We have seen an influx of top-notch girls joining the unit and we have understood that we are dealing with highly talented and motivated girls.  I keep hearing the question – ‘Where can we find more girls like these?'”

What would you like to say to the girls who are still unsure?

“The best advice I can give them is to make their choices after serious introspection and ask themselves ‘What does Hashem demand of you?’ God gave me a mind and a mouth and the ability to lead processes.  I am constantly trying to find out what He wants me to do in this world.  Twelve years ago the answer to that question was to join the army and take on meaningful positions during my military service.  It was not a second-best option, it was the best thing I could do at the time.   Nobody had to find a halakhic allowance to permit me to do military service; God Himself wanted me to do just that.  My choices came from a place of great faith.”

And what would you tell educators?

“I would like to open doors and create opportunities so that girls could make brave choices in future.  There are so many places that belittle the place of the army and claim that it does not go hand in hand with a family.  This is a cowardly attitude.  It would be better to believe in the girls and let them make their own decisions.  We must provide them with a strong foothold and enable them to choose from a place of empowerment, not a place of fear.”

Rabbanit Sally Mayer

Rosh Midrasha of the Maria and Joel Finkle Overseas Program at Midreshet Lindenbaum.  47 years old, married to Rabbi Eitan, mother of six, lives in Neveh Daniel. 

scan page 4Many eyebrows were raised 20 years ago in New York at the sight of a woman learning Talmud.  Some did not leave it at that, and went so far as to ask whether the teacher who was teaching Talmud in the religious high school Maayanot was an observant Jew.  Rabbanit Sally Mayer, who currently heads the Overseas Program at Midreshet Lindenbaum, and was a young teacher who had just started out back then, was shocked by the question.  “I couldn’t understand how such a question could even be asked.  It clearly showed that the underlying assumption was that Torah study for women impairs their spiritual world.  The revolution of Torah study for women came about to do just the opposite: to deepen the avodat Hashem of women and girls and enable us to build our spirituality in the best and most profound way, so that we may be able to go back to our own families and communities and strengthen them in turn.

“I still find it hard to understand how people can view what I’ve just described in the opposite sense.  Surely it is not possible that somebody who learns will be less connected to Torah and to God.  Fortunately, such attitudes are changing.  I recall that as a young girl studying Talmud, there was great suspicion towards me and my motives, but the more people see women learning Torah and observing mitzvot the less suspicion there is.  If anything, we enhance the spirituality of the Jewish People, and I think this is becoming more and more clear to numerous social circles.”

Rabbanit Mayer was herself a student in Midreshet Lindenbaum’s Overseas Program at the beginning of the 1990s.  After making aliya she taught in the program for 14 years, and last summer she was appointed as its head.  When I ask her what it’s like to leave Manhattan and move to Neveh Daniel, she answers:  “We have everything we need here, except for our family of course.  We had always waited for the day to make aliya, and we haven’t looked back since.”

The program she heads accepts girls from the USA, England, Canada and Australia who have come to learn Torah studies on a high level for a period of a year.  During the course of the year they also acquire tools for good leadership. 

Who are the girls who come to the program?

“Most come with vast knowledge, but others don’t come with a rich background.  We expose them to advanced Torah study in ways that were not familiar to them beforehand.  We take them up a notch, and the encounter and connection with Israeli girls has an added value as well because they experience what it is like to be a woman living in Israel.  For example, they see their friends going through the army selection process or looking for places to do National Service, and it gets them thinking how they, too, can contribute.  Israeli youth grows up with a lot of ideals, and I think it rubs off on them.”

Do you encourage them to make aliya or to go back abroad and strengthen their communities there?

“Some of the girls remain in Israel and make aliya, and others go back to their communities and become ambassadors of Torah and agents of change.  We had a student from Strasbourg who ultimately did make aliya, but in the interim period, between ending the program and moving to Israel, she founded a women’s Beit Midrash in her native town – something that had never existed there beforehand.  I recall another young woman who went back to New York and founded an organization by the name of Bnot Sinai that ran a Beit Midrash program for women in the community.  We have stayed in touch, and she has told me that the got the inspiration for all her endeavors from our midrasha. 

“We prepare them for life in Jewish communities abroad, in the hope that they will come back.  The future of the Jewish People is in Israel.  However, we are very proud of the fact that our young graduates become community leaders on campuses abroad.”

We have recently heard of the growing chasm between Israel and American Jewry.  Do you feel it?

“We don’t feel it at all.  When one comes to Israel for an entire year it is not like coming for a visit or on vacation; it means living and breathing the People of Israel through happy times as well as tragic times.  It is a very uniting experience.  Joint learning of native Israelis and our women from abroad is something that has the power to shatter myths and stereotypes.  Beyond the simple bonding that takes place during these encounters, the girls discover we all have common goals.  In wake of the massacre in Pittsburgh we opened up our evening learning session with a prayer expressing our heartfelt empathy for the community which lost eleven of its members.”

What is your dream?

I would love to see young women learning and teaching others and taking themselves more seriously in the world of Torah and mitzvot.  I would like them to view themselves as the leaders of the future, both in the family and in the community.  I would like to see more women writing Torah essays and commentaries – this is something that is very lacking.  And I don’t mean women who write because they are women and who only deal with matters relating to women; I mean women who write simply because they are Jewish scholars and thinkers.  In much the same way that women, as 50 percent of the population, can contribute to any field, I would like to see women advancing in Torah study and taking part in Torah discourse. 

“We will soon be opening a new program by the name of Matmidot with the aim of identifying girls with talent for Torah study and leadership and giving them scholarships for excellence.  Every young woman joining this track will receive personal guidance and a personal mentor from the teaching staff who will guide her in scholarly Torah writing.  We are hoping to take them to the next level – implementing their Torah knowledge through writing and public speaking.

“But also women who have not chosen Torah as a profession have a place in my dream.  I would like to see them taking their knowledge, their talents, their sense of leadership and utilizing it to become doctors, nurses, lawyers – it really makes no difference – and investing their vitality and energy in their Jewish communities.  They are the community leaders of tomorrow.”


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