NEW YORK — In a historic move giving Orthodox women in the United States more authority to answer halachic questions on family purity, the first class of women advisers in Jewish Law graduated on Sunday.

Five women graduated from the North American branch of Nishmat’s yoetzet halacha program in a ceremony at Congregation Sheartith Israel, Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Manhattan.

The five women, Dena Block, Nechama Price, Lisa Septimus, Tova Warburg Sinensky, and Avital Weissman, received certification as yoatzot halacha after completing two years of comprehensive study and examinations from Nishmat’s Miriam Glaubach Center for Advanced Torah Study.

Block, Price, Septimus, Warburg-Sinensky, and Weissman are pioneers in the field, the first women in America to have been trained to be yoatzot halacha, women advisers in Jewish Law, including but not necessarily limited to family purity law.

Housed at Maayanot Yeshiva High School in Teaneck under the auspices of Rabbi Kenneth Auman, dean of the US Yoatzot Halacha Fellows Program, the five women studied hilchot niddah, as outlined by the Israeli rabbinic curriculum, combined with an overlook of women’s health issues such as contraception, fertility, sexuality, and psychology.

The graduates have all accepted positions in synagogues and institutions in and around the New York area.

Rabbi Yonah Reis, Av Beit Din of the Chicago Rabbinical council and a Yale Law graduate, delivered the keynote address, praising both the program’s depth of study dedication, and its dedication to create strong female leaders in the Jewish community.

Graduate Nechama Price recognized her and her classmate’s innovative accomplishment. “We’re the first women trained in America specifically for an American tzibur [community].”

‘We’re the first women trained in America specifically for an American tzibur’

Price was initially reluctant to join the program when she was approached two years ago as she has taught at a collegiate level for seven years. “I wasn’t sure how much I would gain,” said Price, who continued that the course “added facets to my knowledge that I could not have envisioned.”

The phenomena of yoatzot halacha first evolved in Israel 16 years ago because many women feel uncomfortable asking male rabbis certain family purity questions. “It’s just like I would feel more comfortable with a female gynecologist. It’s private,” said Adira Botwinick, a newly married professional.

According to Rabbi Auman, the yoatzot “get questions that I was never asked. The bottom line is: women still feel more comfortable speaking to women.”

Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schachter, Yeshiva University professor of Jewish History and Jewish Thought, said “thousands of women who never before asked questions now feel comfortable doing so, knowing that they will get answers informed by deep halachic wisdom and sensitivity.”

‘Thousands of women who never before asked questions now feel comfortable doing so’

In his keynote address, Reis notes that there was a time when women either were not educated or did not feel comfortable enough to ask their local Orthodox rabbis their family purity questions. Reis acknowledged that this behavior “lead to leniencies and unnecessary stringencies,” because women wouldn’t ask.

“The yoetzet halacha program created a resource for many such women,” Reis said. The program “preserves the values of tziniut [modesty] for the larger Jewish community.”

Made possibly by Felix and Miriam Glaubach, this is an American version of Nishmat’s yoetzet halacha program which was founded in Israel by Rabbanit Chana Henkin in 1997. Nishmat has certified 85 yoatzot to date. 

Nishmat’s pilot US program was launched in 2011, and it offers one of the highest levels of female Torah study in the United States.

Although there was significant backlash when the Israeli program launched, the opposition noting that it was untraditional and immodest for women to learn these subjects and advise on such matters, it is now endorsed by fifty influential rabbis.

Among them, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, third president of Yeshiva University, who was, according to Dr. Giti Bendheim, Yoatzot Halacha Chair of the American Friends of Nishmat, “the first internationally acclaimed Jewish leader to speak out supporting [the program].” Lamm’s granddaughter, Tova Warburg Sinensky, is one of the program graduates.

While the future of the program remains unclear, Henkin remains confident. “I don’t know what the future holds for us,” but the program has created “women with skills to deal with what the future brings, and we hope to continue to do so.”