Hundreds of friends, and family, and numerous rabbis took their place beside Nishmat Founder and Dean, Rabbanit Chana Henkin, in welcoming the first cohort of American-educated Yoatzot Halacha to their historic new place of leadership in Jewish life, on October 27, 2013 at Congregation Shearith Israel, The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York. The five women, Dena Block, Nechama Price, Lisa Septimus, Tova Warburg Sinensky and Avital Weissman, studied with Nishmat faculty for two years, under the aegis of Nishmat’s Miriam Glaubach Center. The graduates studied 1,000 hours of Talmud, Codes and contemporary Responsa alongside an intensive curriculum in women’s health including fertility, gynecology, and sexuality, as these interface with Jewish Law.
“We’re witnessing the emergence of a historic rabbinic consensus around Yoatzot Halacha, who vastly enhance the quality of Jewish women’s lives,” said Rabbanit Chana Henkin. “This graduation is a landmark and these are the women of the hour,” she said. "Zeh hayom asah Hashem, this is no less than a miracle."
The new Yoatzot Halacha have won backing from a wide swath of American rabbinic leaders. Over 40 were on the Honorary Rabbinic Committee for the graduation, and more than 20 RCA rabbis showed their support at the event itself, despite numerous rabbinic commitments on a Sunday. Rabbi Yona Reiss, Av Bet Din of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, who delivered the keynote address, enthusiastically endorsed Yoatzot, offering
“These remarkable women are poised to play a pivotal role in promoting appreciation of taharat hamishpacha, facilitating happy and healthy marriages, and enabling the birth of more beautiful Jewish children in the world… It is incumbent upon us, to express our support publicly for their accomplishments and to provide them with the necessary encouragement and resources to enable them to carry out their mission.”
Rabbi Reiss also stressed the importance of rabbinic leadership adapting to the times, continuing,
“In each generation there are different needs and different opportunities, and one of the jobs of Torah leaders, the dor dor v’dorshav, is to determine how to address those needs in accordance with our halakhic traditions and principles in order to be responsive to the realities of our times.”
Including the five women certified on Sunday, Nishmat has graduated a cadre of 85 Yoatzot Halacha worldwide. They have collectively answered over 200,000 questions on Nishmat’s Golda Koschitzky Hotline, on www.yoatzot.org, and in their home communities.
Positions have already been created for the graduates as Yoatzot Halacha of Great Neck Synagogue (NY), Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun and Mt. Sinai Jewish Center (Manhattan), The Five-Towns (NY), Greater Philadelphia (PA), and Plainview (NY). The new graduates join three Yoatzot, Bracha Rutner, Shoshana Samuels and Sarah Cheses, educated at Nishmat in Israel and already practicing in the United States. The three split their time between 16 synagogues and schools, lecturing, teaching, and responding to questions (15,000, so far).
“The questions Yoatzot answer, the observances we strengthen, and the life challenges we help navigate, impact entire families profoundly,” said newly appointed Yoetzet Halacha of the Five Towns and AFN Board member Lisa Septimus.
Rabbi Kenneth Auman, Dean of the U.S. Yoatzot Halacha Fellows Program commented, “Yoatzot get questions that I was never asked. The bottom line is women still feel more comfortable speaking to women. I try to be nice and I try to be warm but there is no comparison. They have promoted the observance of Taharas Hamishpacha (family purity) in a very meaningful way.”
Emcee Dr. Giti Bendheim, Yoetzet Halacha Chair of American Friends of Nishmat, opened the program reflecting on the changes in women’s leadership in her lifetime.
"I’ve seen the slow but steady dawning of understanding within the Modern Orthodox community of the opportunities and responsibilities that can and should be taken on by strong, capable, and committed women … the institution of a vocation for orthodox women to address their own religious needs with comfort and rigor shows an enlightened understanding of the possibilities inherent in Halacha, and works relentlessly within its parameters to promote the beauty and holiness of the Torah,” said Dr. Bendheim.
Joining Rabbanit Henkin and program faculty Rabbi Kenneth Auman and Rabbi Gedalyah Berger for the certification was Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun and Principal of The Ramaz School in Manhattan, who has been central to Yoatzot Halacha from the start. An emotional moment of the ceremony came when Yeshiva University President Emeritus Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm personally presented the Yoetzet Halacha certification to his granddaughter Tova Warburg Sinensky.
Drs. Miriam and Felix Glaubach, who established Nishmat’s Miriam Glaubach Center, were recognized for their generosity and pioneering vision, without which the U.S. Yoatzot Halacha Fellows Program would not exist in America. In a dramatic moment, Dr. Felix Glaubach spontaneously rose to call upon the audience to join him in sustaining this historic undertaking. Harriet Schimel, President Emerita of American Friends of Nishmat, was recognized for her devoted stewardship of the program, as was Program Director Yoetzet Halacha Atara Eis and Moshe and Charlotte Green Chair in Jewish Law Noa Lau.
Many Nishmat International Board of Governors (indicated with *) and American Friends of Nishmat Board members were in attendance including International Board of Governors President Jeanie Schottenstein, AFN President Sharon Mintz*, AFN Vice President Wendy Greenbaum*, Dr. Nicole Agus, Rose Gerszberg, Drs. Miriam* and Felix Glaubach, Karen Heilig, Michael and Linda* Jesselson, Dr. Tamar Kahane, Chavie Kahn, Hadassah Lieberman*, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, Rochelle Stern Major, Harriet Schimel*, Sandy Seligsohn, Linda Weiner, and Roselyn Weitzner. Also in attendance were Golda Koschitzky Hotline founders Dr. Tamar Goldstein and Faye Koschitzky; Ellie and David Werber, whose Werber Family Mentorships at Nishmat provided invaluable mentorship hours to Yoatzot; and numerous Nishmat alumnae.
Jeanie Schottenstein closed the program with a warm and admiring salute to the graduates. American Friends of Nishmat Board Members Chavie Kahn and Harriet Schimel chaired the Graduation, with Dr. Giti Bendheim.