November 2, 2011
Expert in Jewish law, women’s health offers intimate help
Recently, a young woman who had suffered a miscarriage called Shoshana Samuels, who is a yoetzet halacha, a trained adviser in the Jewish laws of family purity. Samuels was able to answer the woman’s halachic (Jewish legal) questions about the bleeding following a miscarriage, but she had some questions for the woman.
Was she OK? Did she know about the support group for Jewish women dealing with losing a baby?
The two women talked for a while, and Samuels both answered the woman’s halachic question and cried with her.
The ability to integrate medical, halachic and emotional issues that regularly intersect around questions of sexuality, women’s health and Jewish law is exactly how the pioneering Keren Ariel Yoatzot Halacha program has proven its worth, according to its founder, Rabbanit Chana Henkin.
“When we started, we realized the program was vital, but I don’t think anyone realized how vital it was,” said Henkin, who is founder and dean of Midreshet Nishmat, The Jeanie Schottenstein Center for Advanced Torah Study for Women in Jerusalem.
More than 70 women have graduated from the program since 2000, gaining proficiency not only in relevant Jewish texts but also in associated medical and psychological issues. More than 200,000 women have consulted with yoatzot through a hotline, and thousands more have accessed hundreds of articles on the Web site or sent questions via e-mail. Communities in Israel employ some 30 yoatzot, and around a half-dozen communities in the United States have hired yoatzot in the last few years.
This year, Samuels will be bringing the program to Los Angeles.
She is based in Teaneck, N.J., where she has worked as both as a yoetzet and a high school teacher since the summer, but Samuels will visit Los Angeles six times over the course of the year and will field questions by phone and e-mail from L.A. women. She held introductory meetings here in September, and on Nov. 6 and 7, she will meet with girls at YULA and Shalhevet high schools, as well as with mothers of young girls, to explore how to discuss issues of intimacy and halacha.
Laws of family ritual purity, taharat hamishpacha, based on biblical verses and expounded upon by rabbinic authorities, stipulate that a woman who is menstruating may not be physically intimate with her husband. The period of separation ends seven days after menstruation stops and is marked with a visit to the mikveh, a ritual bath filled partially with rainwater. But, like all matters related to halacha, the details of the parameters can lead to volumes of regulations. Exactly when does menstruating begin and end, according to Jewish law? Does midcycle staining count? What does the couple’s physical separation entail? What are the rules surrounding immersing in a mikveh?
Issues get especially tricky during key lifetime moments — weddings, childbirth or miscarriage, infertility, menopause, gynecological illness or breast cancer. The halachot can impact a couple’s sex life, a woman’s self-image or her ability to conceive.
While most Orthodox women study the do’s and don’ts of taharat hamishpacha before marriage, copious minutiae remain in the hands of the experts, and questions often emerge as new situations present themselves. Traditionally, it has been rabbis who have clarified murky points of law, but women often hesitate to bring these personal matters to a male rabbi. Women might opt instead to err on the side of caution, imposing often unnecessary periods of separation on the couple.
“Women like to talk things out and understand things from all angles, and they might not feel comfortable reaching out to a rabbi,” Samuels said. “One of the best things about having a yoetzet is that there is an open invitation to call. Of course, rabbis have always been available for this service, but we are extending an invitation.”
And women are answering.
In one community, a new yoetzet fielded 150 inquiries in her first year. The rabbi told her he had received three questions the year before.
Samuels said she has heard from around 100 women in Teaneck just since August, and, within a few weeks of her first visit to Los Angeles in September, nearly 20 women called or e-mailed.
If the yoetzet determines that a question requires a psak halacha — an original ruling based on individual circumstances — she consults with a rabbi.
“At the very beginning, people said this program would undermine the relationship of rabbis and women,” Henkin said. “But it turns out the opposite is true. When we put a yoetzet to work in a community and to work together with the rabbi — which is the model we’ve evolved — the result is the rabbi gets more questions through the yoetzet than he would have gotten otherwise.”
Recognizing these benefits, a committee of women worked with community rabbis to bring Samuels to Los Angeles. They hope this pilot year will lead to a full-time yoetzet moving to Los Angeles.
Samuels’ work in Los Angeles is being supported by three Modern Orthodox synagogues and a girls’ high school — Beth Jacob Congregation, Young Israel of Century City, B’nai David-Judea and YULA Yeshiva of Los Angeles Girls High School, all in the Pico-Robertson area.
Rabbi Abraham Lieberman, head of school at YULA Girls School, leaped at the chance to have a role model like Samuels be part of the Los Angeles Jewish community.
“It so empowering to these young Jewish women to look at her and to see that she is learned, and her knowledge is respected, and that people look up to her and turn to her with questions,” Lieberman said.
A scheduled hour-long visit to YULA from a visiting yoetzet a few years ago turned into a four-hour rap session with the girls, and Lieberman is expecting that Samuels will have the same effect on the girls as they talk next week about issues of modesty and relationships.
Samuels is 26 and has two children, including one born just a few months ago. She is from Flatbush, in Brooklyn, N.Y., graduated from Stern College, and then did graduate work at Yeshiva University’s advanced talmudic studies program before spending two years training at Nishmat’s yoetzet program. She also received a master’s degree in Jewish studies at Ben-Gurion University.
The benefits of the program have reached beyond the individuals who consult with yoatzot.
Questions submitted through the hotline and the Web site have generated a valuable database of concerns.
“We have masses of information, and we’ve discovered a universe of unmet needs of woman, so the yoatzot have published articles in rabbinic journals about such things as breast cancer and Jewish law, and fertility and Jewish law,” Henkin said.
Articles and research are under way involving infertility treatments, breast reconstruction, contraception, fasting while breast feeding, and endometriosis and taharat hamishpacha, among other subjects.
Yoatzot have also referred women to professionals after uncovering instances of domestic abuse or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Many questions arise around issues of infertility, caused either by medical issues or by a cycle that puts ovulation into the seven-day period following menstruation, when sex is prohibited.
“There have been a lot of babies born as the result of our yoatzot,” Henkin said. “The most rewarding thing is when someone comes over to the yoetzet and introduces her to a baby and says, ‘This is your baby.’ ”
Shoshana Samuels will speak about “Teach Our Daughters: Discussing Topics Related to Intimacy and Halacha” on Nov. 7, 7:30 p.m., at a private home in the Pico-Robertson area. Open to women only. Contact YoetzetLA@gmail.com for the address.