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Mikeitz Sheva Shanim: Reflections on Seven Years of Serving as a Yoetzet Halacha in Teaneck

(Courtesy of the Teaneck Yoetzet Initiative) As I declutter my home and pack for aliyah this summer, my physical preparations are balanced by a fair amount of reminiscing and reflecting on the past seven years. Seven years, over 100 local presentations, more than 6,000 halachic consultations, and the privilege of helping more than 1,300 individual women and couples. I’ve learned so much during this time, and wanted to share some parting thoughts with you.

Knowledge Is Power

Ignorance is not bliss. Sure, we can go into many situations in life without information and manage okay. But lack of information can make us vulnerable and frustrated. In particular, lack of awareness of the nuances of the laws of taharat hamishpacha can cause a tremendous amount of strain on many people’s observance and their attitudes toward halacha. For example, a woman who thinks all colored discharge makes her status change can spend months attempting to get to the mikvah, each exasperating stain chiseling away at her appreciation of the laws and potentially damaging her relationship with Hashem and/or her husband.

What can we do? Be proactive. Ask, ask, ask. Ask if you’re not sure and ask to be sure. Ask if something about the situation is atypical or upsetting. Ask by calling (201) 655 2180 or by emailing [email protected]. It has never been easier to ask. The rabbanim, rebbetzins and yoatzot in town welcome your questions and want to help. Please ask.

I have so much respect and awe for women in our community who balance self, family, work and avodat Hashem with great effort and true grace. I admire the way women (and men and children, but I mostly interact with adult women) open their homes to guests on Shabbat. I admire the way women squeeze in a time-sensitive bedika after an intense meeting at work and before carpool. I admire the way women lament the times that they did not get to squeeze in that bedika and resolve to do better the next day. I admire the effort women invest in their relationships with their husbands, children and friends.

Aside for work and family life, women in this community juggle board meetings and personal fitness, shiurim and shiva calls, friendships and financial burdens, psychotherapy and early-morning fertility appointments. While doing all these things, they observe the laws of taharat hamishpacha and call with questions, having every intention of following the directions given. They call with tremendous yirat shamayim. The women in this community are awe-inspiring and have taught me a great deal.

But ‘Women Are Not Made of Iron.’

So said my wise grandmother, Bobby Fruchter, when she saw me dive back into work and family responsibilities without skipping a beat after a second-trimester pregnancy loss. It took me quite some time to internalize Bobby’s message, but when I heard it in other women’s narratives it got easier. One woman I met through her halachic questions told me about how she delivered a homemade dinner to a neighbor in honor of that family’s new baby while actively miscarrying, literally still hemorrhaging while waiting at the family’s door with tins filled with fresh food. Unfortunately, such self-torturous vignettes are abundant.

Coming off the previous observation regarding the incredible commitment that women in this community have to avodat Hashem of all kinds, I think it is critical to temper these feeling of drive and awe with the message I am still absorbing from my grandmother: women are not made of iron. We cannot be anything and everything for all people in our lives at all times. In many cases, if we strive for that we find painful deficiencies in private and deep places in our souls and in our closest relationships. Discontent and resentment can breed in those places. We must know how and when to make clear boundaries and say, “No thank you” and “please reach out to me for next year’s event; this year is just too hectic for me,” and “I thought I’d be able to make you dinner next week but I realize now it’s too much. I’m so sorry to change the plans.” And we must know how to establish these boundaries for ourselves, as we are the only ones who can.

I recall Rebbetzin Taubes’ words at last year’s annual community-wide yoetzet event: “What is the meaning of ואהבת לרעך כמוך It makes no sense for this to mean that we expect the world of our friends and give them no credit for each thing they do. And yet many of us treat ourselves that way!” Rabbi Krohn, in a drasha on the Yamim Noraim at Rinat several years ago, said it this way, “Let us resolve to be as kind to ourselves as we are to others.”

Taharat Hamishpacha Is a Nexus

Women’s health encompasses relationships, sexuality, fertility, child-rearing, body image, aging, contraception and self-concept. The halachot of this area include everything from the Jewish views on physical intimacy as an essential dimension of a couple’s closeness to the detailed laws of keeping a calendar, from the difference between finding blood on a tampon and on a blue-colored garment to the ways to pass a Kiddush cup while niddah, from the bedikot of the tahara process through the immersion in the mikvah. It is therefore not surprising that each woman’s experience of the intersection of women’s health and halacha can range from exciting to dreadful depending on what she is facing in her life.

Taharat Hamishpacha affords us an opportunity to check in with ourselves vis a vis the mind-body-soul trifecta. Positive feelings here are something to celebrate, and feelings of hurt or anger are things to reach out about. This brings us back to our first point: be proactive. Give a ring. Even when it seems unlikely, there is a lot to be gained by reaching out.

Collaboration Is Sky-High

Lastly, I am grateful to the tremendous support from rabbis, rebbetzins, yoatzot, doctors, therapists and other professionals. It has been a distinct honor for me to work with so many professionals who advocate tirelessly on behalf of their congregants, patients and community members. I just counted the rabbanim in my phone’s contacts—74 rabbanim! These rabbanim give generously of their time and actively work to clarify the halachot at hand. They listen and research at any hour of any day that they are called upon. Jewish communities the world over owe a tremendous debt to their rabbinic leaders for this indispensable service.

The Yoetzet Initiative in Teaneck has been working for a decade in collaboration with schools, shuls, individuals and organizations to provide women of all ages and stages with a comfortable place to ask questions and get help with any and all relationship-based and women’s health and halacha issues. We collaborate with Project SARAH, NechamaComfort, Yesh Tikva, Lamdeinu, Sharsheret, Amit, Emunah and, of course, the institution that dreamed up the role of a yoetzet halacha, Nishmat. Over these years of serving the women in Teaneck, I have also worked closely with the staff of the Teaneck Mikvah Association. In particular, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Miriam Feman for the sensitivity and care she provides to each woman she encounters, whether it be a kallah I just taught, a woman arriving at the mikvah after weeks of questions and back-and-forth, or a woman plagued by anxiety related to preparation for mikvah immersion.

These collaborations are truly community-wide and a sign of a robust, healthy, growth-oriented community. While I am very excited about my family’s aliyah and the personal and multi-generational dreams it fulfills, this is a community I am sad to leave. We have accomplished so much together over the past seven years. It is such an incredible delight to turn the page together as we welcome Yoetzet Halacha Tova Warburg Sinensky to usher in with you, b’ezrat Hashem, many more years of plenty.

Note: Hear Yoetzet Halacha Shoshana Samuels speak at the sixth annual community-wide Yoetzet Halacha Event on Wednesday, July 18, 2018, at 8 p.m. To RSVP, sponsor, or submit messages to the panelists, please visit www.rinat.org/yoetzetevent2018.

By Shoshana Samuels

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