"Women are voting with their feet. The volume of questions is nothing short of a tidal wave. The women are getting 10 to 15 questions a night," says Rabbanit Chana Henkin, founder of Nishmat, the women's yeshiva in Jerusalem that runs the two-year intensive program to become a yoetzet, a consultant.
Henkin was in Los Angeles recently as a scholar-in-residence at B'nai David-Judea on Pico, where she was eager to share news of what she considers a historic moment.
"There's been a sea of change in Jewish life for women in which we've watched the emergence of the first generation of Talmudically literate women," says Henkin. "We couldn't have done something like this even six years ago."
There are another 17 women going through the program now, and many more applicants eager to submit to two years of intensive training and rigorous written and oral exams.
Nishmat's yoatzot are impacting a wide swath of Israeli society. In addition to advising the women who come to them nightly -- from communities ranging from secular to Charedi -- the yoatzot have been integrated into Israel's religious establishment as teachers of the laws of family purity in premarital counseling, which the rabbinate requires of all couples.
Henkin is also working with local religious councils to have the women available for questions as part of the council's services.
Rabbinic support for the yoatzot has been forthcoming from the segment of the Orthodox community that allows women to study Talmud.
"The rabbis have realized that this is promoting a more correct Jewish observance, and at the same time it's giving women dignity," Henkin says.
The laws dealing with menstruation and sexual intimacy often hinge on individual circumstances, which need to be investigated and decided upon by a halachic authority. Women who approach rabbis are sometimes reluctant to go into detail about their bodily functions. Often, Henkin says, women ask their questions through the rabbi's wife and important facts are not elicited. Or, she says, they do not ask the question at all, and impose upon themselves unnecessary restrictions.
"Just as women frequently feel more comfortable going to women gynecologists, there's a comfort level in speaking to someone who is empathetic and with whom you feel capable of being completely open with in dealing with things that are very personal," Henkin says.
The yoatzot consult with rabbis on questions that are complex or require original halachic innovation.
"Our women are not replacing rabbis, they are not aspiring to be rabbis and they are not aspiring to replace rabbis," Henkin says. "They are working in concert with rabbis to provide a real service which never before in Jewish history has been available to women."
Henkin says the benefits extend not just to those asking questions, but to the yoatzot themselves, who include doctors, lawyers and Ph.D.s.
"We're creating an avenue for the highly accomplished woman to contribute to Jewish life," Henkin says.
Nishmat's other programs, serving 250 women, are similarly rigorous. The 10-year-old school, which includes year-long programs, summer programs and special classes, is at the forefront of providing venues for women to excel at intensive text study.
"Jewish life is dynamic," Henkin says. "Nobody could have predicted 100 years ago where we would be today."
For more information go to the Nishmat home page at VirtualJerusalem.com, or call (212) 983-6975.