Haaretz: New Role for Orthodox Women Hits U.S.

Counselors are helping observant women who are uncomfortable asking rabbis about intimate matters.

by Debra Nussbaum Cohen, Haaretz, October 31, 2013

NEW YORK – Cheers rose up from family and friends as each of the five Orthodox women – the first in the United States to complete formal training certifying them to advise other women on the laws of family purity, a role traditionally played by rabbis – stepped up to accept her diploma Sunday at the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

The women have completed a two year course run by Nishmat, a Jerusalem-based women’s yeshiva, training them to advise others on all aspects of observing the laws of taharat hamispacha. It is a role usually played by rabbis, but women today are increasingly uncomfortable turning to men to ask intimate questions about their menstrual periods, immersion in the mikveh (ritual bath) and timing of sex with their husbands, say those involved with the program.

In addition to taking calls from women with questions, the Jewish law counselors – known as yoetzot halakha – give lectures and classes to synagogues and Jewish community groups. Close to 250,000 callers have phoned a toll-free hotline in Israel (accessible by a toll-free U.S. number as well) to ask questions, said Atara Eis, program director of the U.S. Yoatzot Halakha Fellows Program of Nishmat’s Miriam Glaubach Center, as it is formally known.

Nishmat, which was founded and continues to be run by Rabbanit Chana Henkin, began training yoetzot halakha at the Jerusalem campus in 1997 and has since graduated 80 women – 85 counting the new American graduates. They work in Israel, England and the United States.

The five new graduates studied together three times a week over two years, in the beit midrash at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, N.J. Six more women have just begun the program, which costs $250,000 a year to run and gives each student a $7,500 stipend, said Nishmat staff.

The graduation was heralded by Henkin and others as a “landmark.”

But controversy over maharats, the female Orthodox clergy ordained last June by Rabbi Avi Weiss and Yeshivat Maharat, has forced the yoatzot into a defensive posture. Comments on news articles in a handful of newspapers catering to Orthodox communities about the yoatzot graduation reflected the debate. In the online publication Voz Is Neis [What’s the News?], “Reb Yid” commented that “For some people this is a good thing, for obvious reasons. For others, it's simply a way to sneak female clergy into Orthodoxy through the back door.” Someone signing his name as Mark Levin wrote, “What a very slippery slope we have here.” Someone else signing his or her name as “Sane,” wrote “For the past 3,000 years, the Rabbi was good enough. What has changed?”

Henkin, at the graduation, appeared to want to distance herself from dissension over maharats.

“[The yoetzot] have established landmarks while avoiding controversy," she said. "Through boldness of vision and softness of tone yoetzot are the friendly face of halakha for tens of thousands of women.”

“Of course” there is defensiveness, “because people equate things that are not equal,” said Nechama Price, a newly graduated yoetzet and an instructor in Judaic studies and Bible at YU’s Stern College for Women. “As a yoetzet I have no interest in becoming clergy. I only want to work with rabbis, not replace them, and it’s important for people to know that.”