When my husband and I, and our baby, made aliyah in 1972, we settled for nearly a decade in the northern development town of Bet Shean, a town of mostly Moroccan Jews.
My husband, Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, was appointed rav eizori, regional rabbi; and I worked in chinuch. The years we spent in Bet Shean were formative, and made us part of the larger Israeli society.
One of the first lessons I learned had to do with taharat hamishpacha. My first mikveh use fell on a Friday night. To my astonishment, the building was locked. The mikveh lady had asked patrons to come on Friday afternoon, so that she could observe Shabbat with her family.
I solved my problem by finding the key and a friend, but realized that a bigger key was missing. A quick check at the Religious Council showed that six women a night on average were using the mikveh, surprisingly few for a traditional town. I had my mission!
I had the mikveh lady reassigned to clean and serve tea at the Religious Council. With my husband’s help, I convinced the Council to hire a young, attractive religious woman in her stead, and I then set out to educate the women of the town.
I formed a panel with the town’s Ashkenazi rebbetzin and a respected Moroccan woman, and for several years we met with mothers via twenty-eight of the town’s thirty religious and secular kindergartens. Three years later, use of the mikveh was up to an average of twenty-six women per night.
Years later, when we moved to Jerusalem and I became head of Nishmat, a center for higher Torah education for women, my mind again turned to taharat hamishpacha. This time, the catalyst was a friend in her late forties who tearfully confided that because of pre-menopausal changes, the system was placing tremendous stress upon her marriage. She had been sending her questions via her husband to a rabbi, but for reasons of modesty was never comfortable discussing her situation herself directly with a rav.
With the support of my husband and of Rabbi Yaakov Warhaftig, we set up a program at Nishmat to train learned women as yoatzot halacha, women who would serve as a first-line for questions of taharat hamishpacha and women’s health. Questions requiring psak were to be referred to the rabbis.
The first class of eight was chosen from among fifty applicants. We sought yirat shamayim (loosely translated as unswerving religious commitment), highest learning level, and an empathetic, lively personality.
Our program combined a rigorous halachic curriculum with two years of studies in women’s health, and ongoing written tests as well as comprehensive “orals” before four poskim. One of our first graduates, Dr. Deena Zimmerman, said her medical boards were a “piece of cake” by comparison.
Two decades and 116 yoatzot halacha later, we have addressed more than 200,000 questions, via our telephone hotline (1-877-yoetzet), our websites in four languages (www.yoatzot.org), and in communities. The questions come from Israel and across the Jewish world. Women regularly tell us they would have added a day or two, or decided matters themselves, rather than discuss intimate matters with a rabbi.
When a woman speaks with another woman, she’s comfortable sharing very personal details that are often halachically significant. Many of the questions we receive have a medical component. Not infrequently, a woman will call to say: “You don’t know me, but nine months ago you helped me become pregnant, and I wanted to tell you that my baby was just born!”
All our work is under rabbinic supervision. Our two rabbanim are permanently on call for questions requiring psak, as are consulting physicians.
We’ve had excellent feedback through the years, from many quarters. A rabbi from Australia wrote us that he had been asked about our website and planned to condemn it from the pulpit, but thought it prudent to see it firsthand before saying anything. He did, and promptly encouraged all the women in his congregation to use it.
Most recently, sixty-three questions and answers on Pregnancy, Birth, Nursing, and Contraception were collected in a first volume, titled Nishmat HaBayit. The questions were drawn from our database of tens of thousands of questions, all documented without identifying personal details.
The sefer was just published, and features accolades from poskim in Israel. It includes a short question, as a woman would ask a yoetzet; a short answer, as the yoetzet would respond to the woman; and a lengthy explanation, including current medical background. The volume also includes a series of medical appendices, which might be helpful to rabbis and poskim.
I call this bringing Torah observance into the twenty-first century. It is about making proper observance of halacha user-friendly and accessible, and eliminating needless suffering that can mar the lives of married couples. I believe this is our religious responsibility.
I pray my work on behalf of taharat hamishpacha will serve as an aliyat neshamah for my son and daughter-in-law, Rabbi Eitam Shimon and Naama Henkin, Hy”d, murdered by terrorists two years ago on Chol HaMoed Sukkot.