Rabbanit Shira Zimmerman would like new olot—or female immigrants to Israel—to have what was not available to her when she made aliyah 20 years ago: a religious studies program aimed at the spiritual growth of young English-speaking women. She observed that young immigrants have access to many services that focus on job and language training, social programming and assistance navigating Israeli bureaucracy. However, young women lack opportunities to focus on their religious growth in a supportive environment along with other new immigrants. To address this gap, in 2021 she founded Beit Midrash Olot, aimed at giving these young women—in Zimmerman’s words—“a soft-landing, Torah-wise.”
Each Wednesday evening dozens of young women between the ages of 19 and 25 spend two hours learning together and enjoying a sponsored dinner. Most come from Jerusalem, though some travel from as far as Tel Aviv, Ashdod and Rehovot. This year, the beit midrash is housed at the Amudim Midrasha in Jerusalem, where the young women have the option to join additional lectures with leading scholars during the evenings. They also gather together for Shabbat excursions during the year that Zimmerman organizes.
Each week a different subject matter is addressed in the beit midrash. Topics have ranged from the Rosh Hashanah prayer service to keeping the laws of kashrut in a shared kitchen to lab-grown meat to demons in Judaism. Zimmerman encourages the participants to bring forward topics that interest them and that they hope to explore further.
Zimmerman explained that for many of the young women, they struggle to find other like-minded peers in their army, national service or university frameworks, causing them to feel lonely in their quest to maintain religious study. “The main feedback I get is that it’s so good to have time in my week that is dedicated to Torah,” she said. “They are no longer in midrasha where they had so much access to Torah. This really helps them continue that.”
Orli Hartstein immigrated to Israel from Columbus, Ohio and is currently serving in the IDF. She has found the opportunity to study Torah with other young women who are also carrying out their military service to be very rewarding. “For most girls, our lives have restarted in a new country, and the beit midrash has been such a big support in helping us not just acclimate, but really enjoy our beginning in Israel,” she said. Another immigrant, Avital Segal from Pittsburgh, shared that she particularly enjoys the open environment that enables her to ask the questions that are on her mind and take part in discussions relating to Jewish law and thought.
Zimmerman, who immigrated from Toronto, has a BA in Talmud and Tanach from Bar Ilan University and earned her semicha at Midreshet Lindenbaum’s Kollel De’ah program. She has over a decade of experience educating English-speaking women in a variety of post-high school midrashot in Jerusalem. Understanding the time restraints young immigrants have as they are still acclimating to a new country and finding their path, she hopes that even just a few hours a week of regular Torah study with a close-knit group of other young women will provide these new immigrants with a spiritual boost that will support them during their first years in Israel, and beyond.
For more information on how to get involved in Beit Midrash Olot contact Rabbanit Zimmerman at [email protected]
Alisa Bodner is a Fair Lawn native who immigrated to Israel a decade ago. She is a nonprofit management professional who enjoys writing in her free time.