Women Leading the Way in their Communities
As COVID-19 changed our lives overnight, creating fear and uncertainty and raising a host of new questions, many people felt a greater need for personal and religious guidance. In this new environment, the halakhic and spiritual leadership role fellows in Ohr Torah Stone’s Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL) play in their communities has been more important than ever. With guidance from WIHL leadership, the fellows are responding to many more halakhic questions, counseling people in distress, and filling a void with community-building programs people crave.
WIHL offers qualified women the opportunity to participate in the highest level Torah study. Over five-years, they cover all of the same material studied by men working towards their rabbinical ordination in Israel, completing the program with certification to become community spiritual leaders authorized to provide guidance in questions of Jewish law. WIHL is enabling these supremely qualified women to achieve new heights in the Jewish world, helping them carve out leadership roles as spiritual leaders and halakhic advisors in communities and organizations throughout Israel. Not only does WIHL find each student internship experiences to help her hone and contribute her skills; staff provide ongoing mentorship to help fellows respond to sensitive halakhic questions and guide community members through the different moments in their lives.
As a community leader in Efrat, Rabbanit Shira Mirvis serves in a pastoral counseling role for many families, gives ongoing classes, and regularly responds to halakhic questions. “With the pandemic and all of the change it brought, many individuals and couples I counsel were on the verge of breakdown. Especially as we were physically isolated from one another, it was critical to ensure that no one was emotionally alone. I reached out by phone regularly to so many people in my community to ensure that no one fell through the cracks.” Until recently, most people who approached Rabbanit Mirvis with halakhic questions came from within her synagogue community. However, recent circumstances have led to many more questions and concerns – related to holiday celebration, going to the mikvah, and mourning rituals, just to name a few examples. As word spread about her expertise, over the last few months, Rabbanit Mirvis received more calls than ever before from throughout Efrat and beyond. “People from different religious communities began to call – many who I never would have expected to see me as a resource.”
Rabbanit Alumah Florsheim, who serves as a spiritual leader in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem, concurred. “Since the pandemic began, people have been calling me with many more halakhic questions than before. Although I haven’t been able to be with my community in person (where she typically spends two weekends a month), I’m connecting with community members all the time, providing many online classes, teaching brides-to-be in preparation for their weddings, and speaking with people individually.”
According to Rabbanit Chamutal Shoval, a community leader in Neve Daniel, “Challenging as it has been, the situation has also created opportunities. For as long as we were unable to gather, I coordinated a weekly Kabbalat Shabbat program each Friday. For many women, I think it was actually easier and more comfortable to participate online, where they truly felt they were equal participants, and the response was very positive. I’ve also received many calls about mourning rituals from people who have lost loved ones; and from my former Midreshet Lindenbaum students who are now soldiers, about issues that have arisen in the army.”
WIHL also creates opportunities to ensure that these remarkable women will have meaningful professional internships in which they can offer their expertise and allow communities to benefit from their experience. Among the new opportunities recently developed was a role for Rabbanit Yael Nitzanim to build community among young adults in the Baka/Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem. Although she wasn’t planning on launching her initiative until after Shavuot, she decided to “fast track” her plans due to the current environment. “As people were feeling so isolated, we saw a need to create online programming with Jewish content to connect young adults to one another and alleviate their loneliness. The response has been fantastic.”
According to Rabbanit Devorah Evron, Director of WIHL, “We are so proud of the women in our program who are continuing their rigorous study schedule while at the same time responding to brand new challenges arising during this unusual time, and we are honored to guide them as they develop into knowledgeable, effective, and compassionate leaders.”