For generations, Jewish leaders have been tasked with addressing communal, familial, and halakhic questions from their community. Often involving personal and private questions, religious women sometimes felt uncomfortable approaching rabbis, opting to either ask the question through a male messenger or not ask the question at all. Without the opportunities for intense study to allow for the mastery of halakha, women in the Orthodox Jewish community have been limited in the halakhic leadership roles open to them, and the impact they can have on Orthodox communal and spiritual life.
Now, within a world of Orthodox Jewry that is becoming increasingly respectful and welcoming to the place of women in positions of educational and spiritual leadership, the Ohr Torah Stone network’s Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL) has launched an international program catering to women leaders from around the world.
Rabbanit Dr. Hannah Hashkes, Director of the new International Halakha Scholars Program (IHSP) explains that the initiative came in direct response to a changing climate towards females in leadership positions. “This program is working to match the pace of a Jewish world that has expressed a clear need for women as proficient and involved partners in matters of halakhic discourse and communal leadership,” she said. “In this day and age, there is no option to leave women out of the conversation, and we are deeply appreciative that Ohr Torah Stone has recognized the need and is responding to that new reality.”
Aided by the recent transition of programs to online platforms, the IHSP has launched with a class of 26 professional women from the United States, Germany, Canada, England, Australia, and Israel to join the inaugural program. Participants are required to study eight hours per week, made up of both online classes and chavruta-style study groups that can also be held online. A four-year program, an in-person intensive seminar is being scheduled for every other summer. The women will receive advanced training in the subjects of Shabbat, Mourning, Kashrut, and Nidda (Family Purity and Fertility.)
“Advancing learning opportunities for women scholars will ultimately lead to a more expansive and effective Jewish leadership landscape that will benefit the entire community. There are many ways within the parameters of halakha that we can empower women and enrich the Jewish community through their leadership and Torah knowledge,” said Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander, President and Rosh Yeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone.
Rabbanit Devorah Evron, Director of the WIHL, said that the opening of this program is another watershed moment in expanding female Jewish scholarship. “While over the last 20 years, women have taken many more leadership roles in institutions, organizations, and communities, until now many haven’t felt that they can adequately contribute to conversations or decisions about halakhic issues,” she said. “The purpose of this new program is to give these women, many of whom are already community and scholarly leaders, the critical halakhic backgrounds they need so that they can fill these roles to the fullest and assist those who come to them for help.”
“The IHSP provides women around the world with an opportunity to study halakha in-depth in a way that was not previously accessible to many of them,” said Dr. Yardaena Osband, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at New York Medical College and co-founder of the New York-based Orthodox Leadership Project which had initially approached OTS to develop the IHSP. “The fact that 26 women enrolled internationally demonstrates the need this program filled for educators and leaders looking expand their ability to understand and teach halakha.”