Teaneck—Women in Bergen County are turning in droves to local Yoatzot Halacha (Women Consultants in Jewish Law) educated in both Israel and Teaneck. These scholars, graduates of the two-year Keren Ariel Yoetzet Halacha Program at Nishmat in Jerusalem, and the satellite program run by Nishmat’s Miriam Glaubach Center and housed at Teaneck’s Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School, answer sensitive personal questions concerning taharat hamishpacha (laws of family purity) and other areas where women’s health intersects with halakha.
Shoshana Samuels, Yoetzet of Teaneck and Englewood, is not surprised at the growing response. A graduate of Keren Ariel, Shoshana is based primarily at Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael, also serving Netiovot Shalom and Englewood’s Ahavath Torah and Kesher Synagogues, with periodic visits to a consortium of synagogues in L.A. as well.
“I felt really blessed to always have had a few phone calls a day from women in need of halakhic guidance,” said Samuels. “But at this point I’m getting four to five big questions a day. The reaction has been strong and is on the increase. The most universal expression is one of utter relief at having a regular person, especially a woman, as a resource.”
Samuels noted that there has been a sharp overall increase in inquiries from women in the Bergen County communities about ritual questions in Jewish law and related areas such as gynecology, obstetrics, fertility, lactation, psychology, sexuality, family dynamics and genetics, all subjects in which Yoatzot are trained.
Due to high demand in communities across the U.S. for more Yoatzot Halachah, Nishmat created an American counterpart which would meet the rigorous standards and expectations of their Israeli program. The first American-educated graduating class of Yoatzot Halacha last fall included five graduates: Dena Block, Nechama Price, Lisa Septimus, Tova Warburg Sinensky and Avital Weissman. Block and Price hail from Bergen County.
Professor Nechama Price, Instructor in Bible and Judaic Studies at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, has been teaching advanced courses in Jewish Family Law for ten years and was always interested in delving into legal sources. Nishmat’s Teaneck program gave her the opportunity she dreamed of and would not have otherwise had. “This outlet was really important to me, and what I got from the program was truly incredible,” said Price. “All my courses at Stern evolved because the program added a tremendous amount to my knowledge. I felt much more qualified to answer complex questions.”
“The Jewish community in Bergen County provides a natural environment for Yoatzot to flourish,” said Dave Matkowsky, Executive Director of American Friends of Nishmat [full disclosure: Dave is the writer’s husband]. “There is genuine openness to women’s Torah leadership combined with deep commitment to halakha and tradition. The communal interest in Yoatzot was reinforced by strong rabbinic support from [Rinat’s] Rabbi Adler, along with Rabbi Goldin and Rabbi Helfgot. Ma’ayanot—which generously donated space for our U.S. Yoetzet Fellowship Program—creates a great inter-generational dynamic where Yoatzot serve as role models for students’ religious aspirations. And [Englewood resident] Dr. Natie Fox, partner in a renowned high-risk pregnancy practice, continues to donate his time and expertise in lectures to our Yoatzot Fellows about cutting-edge medical issues so they can better understand women’s queries and how halakha properly applies to scenarios made possible by advancing medical knowledge and technology.”
“There is always a challenge for a community to create a budget for a new professional communal role, no matter how great the need it serves,” Matkowsky added. “American Friends of Nishmat co-sponsored the Bergen Yoetzet in previous years, and we’re hopeful that local sources of support will take root and expand. At the same time, Nishmat is always turning to the communities that value and benefit from Yoatzot to help us educate the next class, and the next. Bergen is enjoying its second Yoetzet, as is Manhattan; Philadephia already has a third in place. People move; some make aliyah. Unless we have partners not just to hire a local Yoetzet, but to continue training Yoatzot, we may not be able to meet the growing needs of the community.”
The great need is evidenced by the overwhelming response from the women of Bergen County. There was a tremendous turnout at a Yoetzet panel this past July, which attracted over 300 people. Since then, Samuels has answered over 200 halakhic questions from women from every shul in Bergen County. The fact that women from every shul avail themselves of these services attests to their value.
Nechama Price is deeply excited by the chance to serve the community in such a profound way. “Before I became qualified, I was limited to college-age women and kallahs,” said Price. Now I can support women of all ages.”
Bergen county Yoetzet Shoshana Samuels shares her enthusiasm. “Women of Bergen County are energized by this outlet, with many coming over to me saying things like ‘We needed this ten years ago,’ and ‘I’m so happy you exist.’ It’s deeply gratifying and I’m honored to follow in Yoetzet Shana Goldberg’s footsteps. I look forward to the future of Yoatzot.”
By Lisa Matkowsky