8 Years Later, Returning to the Beit Midrash

Last Monday, I returned to the Beit Midrash. At 5:20 am I pulled away from my home in northern Israel so I could spend the day at Nishmat’s Jeanie Schottenstein Center for Advanced Torah Study for Women in Jerusalem. The last time I had sat in the Nishmat Beit Midrash was 8 years earlier for a grueling morning of interviews, a set of 4 formidable oral examinations to assess my knowledge in Taharat HaMishpacha, the last step in becoming certified by Nishmat as a Yoetzet Halacha.

After graduating Nishmat’s Keren Ariel Yoetzet Halacha Program in 2011, I officially wrapped up an intensive stint of study that allowed me to become an address for questions at the intersection of Jewish law and women’s health. Exciting and rewarding in-and-of themselves, I was extremely fortunate to further validate my years of study by immediately serving as a community Yoetzet Halacha. Over a 7-year period I served as Yoetzet Halacha for an initiative led by Congregations Rinat Yisrael, Netivot Shalom, and Shaare Tefillah in Teaneck, NJ as well as travelled to Los Angeles to serve as that community’s first visiting Yoetzet. 

Quickly the experience for me as a Yoetzet Halacha shifted from strictly drawing from the texts I had spent my time studying to questions for myself: How to guide this young woman? How to explain this prohibition? This detail? That permission? How to discuss the sensitive topics that a Yoetzet Halacha is entrusted to explain and explore? Where is the woman I am speaking with coming from as we have these conversations? Is she someone whose many years of marriage included difficult journeys in the spousal relationship, in the realms of fertility, sexuality, mental and physical health? Is the standard “all-things-being-equal” halachic response appropriate in her case? G-d bless the many community rabbanim, rebbitzens, Nishmat poskim, and senior Yoatzot Halacha who were able to guide me.

 How did I come to finally rejoin my colleagues in the Nishmat Beit Midrash? In the beginning of last school year I saw a posting on the Yoatzot listserv sharing the news of an Advanced Torah Fellowship offered by the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture. Immediately I was tickled with excitement: perhaps this can be my opportunity to create a comprehensive guide for mentors preparing a couple for marriage? I had perceived the great need for such a resource while working to professionalize Kallah Teaching in the United States through Nishmat’s Miriam Glaubach Center’s Kallah Teacher Certification Program. So many Rebbetzins and educators want to excel in supporting the couples who turn to them, and they join Nishmat in a journey to become expert kallah teachers. The idea for a book developed from the courses we built and the rich conversations I had with dozens of kallah teachers over different courses we ran. I shelved the thought, as self-doubt and logistical considerations crept up almost as quickly as the initial excitement. 

During the first year of my Aliyah, I made an effort to catch up on some of the “top hits” I had missed during my busy 7 years in the US, and, somewhat ironically, at one point partnered my mindless domestic responsibilities with listening to Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” on audio. Hearing her point that women so often don’t apply for jobs or promotions for precisely the reasons I had decided not to apply for the fellowship, I downloaded the Memorial application and contacted Nishmat immediately. Buoyed by Sandberg’s points, and rushed by the impending deadline, I sent in the application. Lo and behold, this project was a perfect fit for the foundation and is now well underway.  

Thanks to Memorial Foundation and Nishmat, my pouring out and dispensing of information is now on pause for an opportunity to regroup, a chance to re-examine the texts I studied the Beit Midrash in the past and pair it with the vitality, struggle, practicality, and opportunity I saw in the women I served as a community Yoetzet Halacha in the space outside the Beit Midrash, a place where the human landscape taught me the true depth and contours of the halachic experience. It is a great honor to be here.


About the Author
Yoetzet Halacha Shoshana Samuels holds an MA in Jewish Studies from Ben Gurion University and studied Torah at the Beit Midrash for Women in Migdal Oz, YU's SCW and GPATS and at Nishmat. Prior to her family's Aliyah in the summer of 2018, Shoshana was privileged to serve as a community Yoetzet Halacha in Teaneck, NJ. Shoshana is a scholar in Nishmat's Mechon L'Mechkar.