In the only framework of its kind, it is claimed, a fifth group of women has been authorized to answer Halakhic [Jewish legal] questions on women's matters.
At a ceremony last week at Nishmat, the Jerusalem Center for Advanced Jewish Study for Women, eleven women were deemed "Halakhic Advisors," authorized to answer Jewish-legal questions that women may feel embarrassed to ask rabbis.
The women passed a two-year course of study that involved study of Halakhah on a high level, as well as courses in gynecology, pregnancy, birth, and psychology. Each student was tested orally by four rabbis, and passed written tests throughout the course of study. Their answers, however, are only given on straightforward questions; for more involved questions requiring a genuine Halakhic ruling, two rabbis are on-call to give the answers.
The unique course was the joint initiative of Nishmat founder and dean Rabbanit Chaya Henkin, her husband Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, and Rabbi Yaakov Warhaftig of Har Nof, Jerusalem. Their objective was simply to make it easier for women to receive answers to their questions on matters of family purity, pregnancy and related matters.
Nishmat granted a monthly stipend to the women - all of whom are married and working - so that they could take the course. Among them are both new immigrants and native Israelis.
Nishmat currently runs a hotline, open every weeknight and Friday morning, as well as an English-language internet site at which questions can be asked of women. The line and site are staffed by graduates of the special course. Work is currently underway for a Hebrew-language internet site.
Nishmat offers a variety of Torah programs for native Israelis, Ethiopian immigrants and overseas students. The curriculum is "designed to give women high levels of acquaintance with traditional Jewish texts, in an environment of spirituality and commitment to Torah observance which will inspire them to take leadership roles in their communities."
In its Pat neighborhood center in Jerusalem, Nishmat has become one of the main service providers for the largely socio-economically disadvantaged population of secular and traditional Sephardic and Russian Jews. Community programs include regular visits by students to local elderly and ill residents, a free food program, weekly Torah classes for women, and holiday events for the entire neighborhood.