With traditional Jewish schools and study halls closed right now there has been an unexpected positive development: a spotlight has been shone on the impressive state of Jewish women’s scholarship and communal leadership in Israel. Usually the various women’s beit midrash programs and organizations reach those who are members or physically attend classes. However, the current situation has spurred creative opportunities to keep their teachers and halakhic advisors connected with students and communities and has actually yielded the added upside of highlighting the growing number of learned women and provided greater exposure to these hidden treasures.
Of course, many of these organizations were on social media before the coronavirus. But the acute need to keep a sense of routine, social connection and inspiration provided a push to accelerate their online presence. This positive outcome has been demonstrated in two major areas: high level women’s Torah education and women’s halakhic and spiritual leadership.
First, women’s Torah learning. Last week Matan hosted free online pre-Pesach learning programs in Hebrew and English, viewed collectively by several thousand viewers. From biblical archaeology to Jewish law to Jewish philosophy, the zoom rooms provided inspiration and company for both students and teachers. Kolech, which had to postpone their annual Shabbat Dorshot Tov has been hosting several shiurim a week by learned Israeli women and Beit Hillel, a rabbinic organization made up of men and women, has provided online learning by their religious Zionist leaders. One friend shared with me that she got through her two week quarantine thanks to Matan’s classes and daily dose of Hadran’s Daf Yomi.
The second arena where women have jumped in and provided much needed leadership has been in the area of spiritual and halakhic guidance to women and couples. The safety of immersing in the mikveh throughout the coronavirus pandemic is a topic which women feel most comfortable discussing with other women, who can truly empathize with their concerns and experiences. Leadership was swiftly demonstrated by Nishmat’s Yoatzot Halacha (the original pioneers in this area). Then, two bold female scholars raised awareness about areas where mikveh practices were questionable and needed improvement. As a Morah l’Halakha I have been having many ongoing conversations with women in my community. Various webinars and panels took place online in Hebrew by Makor Rishon and Kolech and in English by the Eden Center and Nishmat, providing different perspectives but all demonstrating the added value of empowering women in these halachic and pastoral conversations.
With so much illness, worry and suffering it is hard to make any sense of the painful effects that the coronavirus is having on our lives. It helps to focus on some of the surprising positive outgrowths of this situation. When circumstances change, it leads to potential changes which can have lasting good effects. Pesach is a holiday which celebrates the righteous women who helped bring about the redemption from Egypt. May the continued growth of religious women’s leadership in Israel merit a much needed redemption for the world right now.
* Thank you to John Krasinski for the title idea!