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Dreams

The world of Orthodox women's Jewish education has changed rapidly, and it's made my career, but too many were left behind
Shayna Goldberg, in the beit midrash (study hall). (Courtesy)
Shayna Goldberg, in the beit midrash (study hall). (Courtesy)

Did you ever have a dream that became a reality?

When I was in 11th grade, I first heard about the concept of yoatzot halacha (halachic advisers). At the time it was just that: A concept. An idea. A dream. A vision that Rabbanit Chana Henkin of Midreshet Nishmat had to train women both in Hilchot Niddah (the laws of family purity) and in intersecting topics in women’s health so that they would be equipped to answer questions from other women who might feel more comfortable talking to their own peers about these sensitive issues.

In the backseat of a car on the way to school, with my eyes half-closed, I eavesdropped as Rabbanit Henkin described to my mother her feeling that there were way too many unasked questions. Too many women who were stringent upon themselves and delaying mikveh immersion because they just couldn’t bring themselves to ask the uncomfortable and personal question that needed an answer. Too many women that perhaps cut corners even when they did not want to because they felt they had no better option.

And suddenly, just like that, I had a new dream. Rabbanit Henkin’s dream.

Something was lit deep inside me right then, as I began hoping that one day this program would indeed open. When that happened, I then started praying that circumstances would somehow allow me to enroll. I already loved engaging in serious study of the primary texts of our Halacha, Jewish law, and I also enjoyed informal relationship counseling. The role of the yoetzet halacha combines both of these, as it seeks to support women and couples who are committed to observing this most intimate set of laws that connect to a woman’s menstrual cycle and that dictate the boundaries of a couple’s physical relationship.

Sometimes I still can’t believe that the dream is now reality.

That since the program’s inception in 1997, yoatzot halacha have answered over 300,000 questions, on hotlines, over the internet and in person, in communities around the world.

Over the years, I have felt so fortunate to be able to share the knowledge I was privileged to receive at Nishmat with others. Knowledge is empowering. Knowledge gives a sense of control over a challenging situation. Knowledge enables us to make good halachic decisions and to keep God’s laws to the best of our ability. Knowledge minimizes resentment and frustration. Knowledge allows us to understand the halachic system as a whole and to connect and commit to its laws, even when they touch on the most intimate areas of our lives.

Every time a yoetzet halacha fields a halachic inquiry, she hopes to do so in a way that encourages the woman to ask her question fully and to share all the details, especially the ones that might make a significant difference. The goal is that she can and will share the relevant facts, no matter how private, awkward, simplistic, complex or uncomfortable, so that she can receive the most appropriate answer.

Sometimes there is a question behind the question that needs to be probed and then explored carefully and sensitively. Other times, there is an overarching situation that requires navigation, and the immediate question only hints at something much larger that needs to be worked through.

Whether engaging with a young married bride, a new nursing mother, a woman grappling with infertility or one considering various options for birth control, as a yoetzet halacha, I seek to imitate the sensitivity and meticulousness that was modeled by our greatest rabbis while also adding a certain feminine touch that might determine whether a question is even asked to begin with.

Years ago, in my early work as a yoetzet halacha, I was giving a lecture when I noticed a woman in her mid-60s in the back of the room. It was unusual to see someone past menopause interested in a topic that was clearly no longer personally relevant. After the lecture she approached me and remarked, with tears filling her eyes, that every time she hears a yoetzet halacha speak, she is left feeling both inspired and depressed. Inspired by how far women’s Torah education has come and by the new opportunities we have today as women to help and provide for one another. And yet depressed, because to this day she still wonders whether she could have had more children if she had had a similar resource to which to turn with her own niddah questions.

Have you ever had a dream that never became a reality?

I can still remember how struck and deeply pained I was by the raw emotion of this grandmother who had yet to fully come to terms with the way she felt the laws of niddah had impacted her childbearing years, and with the nagging feeling that it could have been different.

In the decade-and-a-half since then, I have heard more stories from women: of questions never asked, of decisions that were unnecessarily difficult, and of thoughts and experiences that continue to plague them.

Each time, my passion for, commitment to and belief in women being able to converse about this part of their lives with maximum comfort has only deepened and increased.

We cannot allow their questions to go unasked.

The stakes are too high.

Their dreams are too significant.

About the Author
Shayna Goldberg teaches Israeli and American students in the Beit Midrash l'Nashim-Migdal Oz, an affiliate of Yeshivat Har Etzion. She is a Yoetzet Halacha and a contributing editor for Deracheha: Womenandmitzvot.org. She made aliyah with her family to Alon Shvut in July 2011 after working as a Yoetzet Halacha for several synagogues in New Jersey and teaching in Ma'ayanot Yeshiva High School.
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