by Lila Sarick, published in The Canadian Jewish News, November 4, 2014
TORONTO — Orthodox women who need to ask the most intimate, sensitive questions about their own bodies no longer need to approach a male rabbi or simply not ask out of embarrassment or modesty. Instead, a new group of highly trained women can advise them privately on the laws of family purity and mikvah use.
Sarah Cheses, trained in Israel as a yoetzet halachah, or adviser in Jewish law, has recently moved to Toronto where she is counselling women on the intricacies of the law.
“Women don’t receive sufficient education before they get married,” Cheses said. “You have a few classes with a rebbetzin. You don’t have time to discuss pregnancy or menopause when you’re a new bride.”
Women who do not ask questions of rabbinic authorities – and many women are uncomfortable approaching rabbis with these concerns, she said – tend to be more stringent than the Jewish law requires.
“So many times [after giving a class], I’ve heard, ‘I wish I knew that 10 years ago.’”
The types of questions Cheses is asked indicate the pressing need for trained women advisers, she said.
“Several women have called after they have had a miscarriage. More important than even giving them the halachic information was to listen to them, to validate their pain and experiences,” she said. “I tell them I’ve been there before, I know what they’re going through.”
The mikvah has been a hot–button topic since the arrest last month of Washington, D.C., Rabbi Barry Freundel, charged with six counts of voyeurism after a hidden video camera was discovered in his synagogue’s mikvah.
The crisis has filled Cheses’ Facebook pages and inbox, as she and other yoetzot grapple with the shocking implications. “Experts have diagnosed it as a trauma for the whole modern Orthodox community,” she said.
The charges – Rabbi Freundel has pleaded not guilty – are causing the Orthodox community to examine policies about who has access to mikvahs and how they are run, Cheses said.
But her extensive training focused more on individual women and their own questions. With university degrees in biology and public health, she was well prepared for two years of study at Nishmat in Israel, examining both traditional sources about the laws of family purity and taking classes on women’s health, fertility and sexuality.
About 100 women have graduated from Nishmat as yoetzot halachah since the program started in 1999, with the majority practising in Israel. In North America, some graduates have been hired by synagogues to advise women, although Cheses and another yoetzet in Toronto are currently working privately,
Nishmat, which trains yoetzot in Israel and the United States, has been well-accepted by the religious-Zionist community in Israel, because they have made it clear that the women advisers are not intended to supplant rabbis, Cheses said. In North America, about 40 mainstream Orthodox rabbis have endorsed the institution.
Most of the time, the questions the yoetzot field are not “novel,” and they have sufficient education and practice to answer the queries. If a situation is unusual, they will turn to a rabbi, she said.
“The goal is not to replace rabbis, it’s just to give women a more comfortable address.”