Young Israel of Toco Hills this summer hired Tova Warburg Sinensky to serve as the Atlanta Jewish community’s first yoetzet halacha (adviser on Jewish law).
Although the Modern Orthodox synagogue has had yoatzot as scholars in residence, Sinensky is the first official hire for the community, Young Israel Rabbi Adam Starr said. She made the first of four annual visits to Atlanta from her Philadelphia home Aug. 23.
A yoetzet halacha is a woman certified, after extensive training, to serve as a halachic adviser for women on questions regarding taharat hamishpacha (family purity) and mikvah observance.
In his notification to the community June 6, Rabbi Starr detailed Sinensky’s qualifications as a graduate of the U.S. Yoetzet Halacha Fellows Program of Nishmat’s Miriam Glaubach Center. He wrote that the program is approved by well-known gedolei Torah (top Torah scholars) and is supported by respected rabbis in Israel and the United States.
Sinensky was in the first U.S. Nishmat graduating class in Teaneck, N.J., in 2013. She is widely published and has lectured throughout the United States and overseas.
At a time when the Orthodox Union has rejected any rabbinic role for women, the concept of a woman as a halachic adviser might seem revolutionary, but the OU has specified that the yoetzet halacha role is different.
In explanation of the need for yoatzot halacha at the beginning of the movement in 1999, “Rabbanit Chana Henkin recognized that there was a need to integrate women into the halachic system regarding laws of family purity,” according to www.yoatzot.org. As founder of Nishmat, she was aware that many observant women, for reasons of modesty, did not consult rabbis with intimate questions, so they often decided issues for themselves.
In a Times of Israel blog post Dec. 2, 2015, titled “The truth about yoatzot halacha: Responses and reflections,” Sinensky wrote: “For women for whom asking a rabbi is comfortable, ma tov u-mah na’im (that is lovely). However, for those for whom it is not, yoatzot provide another avenue for halachic guidance and emotional support.”
Offering reassurance that yoatzot halacha are specially trained and qualified to counsel from halachic and women’s health perspectives and that women appreciate such guidance from another woman, Sinensky outlined the rigor of the training program. Nishmat’s curriculum includes 1,000 hours of Talmudic study, including all traditional works of Jewish law. After two years of study, fellows are orally tested for four hours by a panel of rabbis.
Yoatzot halacha also benefit from Nishmat’s extensive supplementary curriculum, which covers the areas of women’s health that intersect with taharat hamishpacha, such as gynecology, infertility, psychology, family dynamics, abuse, sexual dysfunction and genetic testing.
In addition to visiting Atlanta four times per year to be an in-person community resource, Sinensky will run webinars and be accessible for questions and consultations via phone, email and text.
In Atlanta she will build relationships, teach classes and run symposia and will be available for personal consultations. She will visit Atlanta Jewish Academy to teach teenagers about intimacy and Jewish law.
Rabbi Starr said he hopes people beyond Young Israel will take advantage of Sinensky’s expertise, and he looks forward to working closely with her to serve Atlanta’s halachic needs.
Her hiring is “a very important step in solidifying Atlanta as a major center of Modern Orthodoxy in the U.S.,” the rabbi said. Young Israel is proud to support women in assuming roles of “halachic spiritual leadership towards the goal of greater Torah observance,” he said, and it’s “a value to our congregation to have a female Torah scholar who will be visiting us with regularity serving as a role model and building relationships.”
Before her first visit to Atlanta in her new role in August, Sinensky answered a few questions from the AJT.
AJT: What started you on your path toward becoming a yoetzet halacha?
Sinensky: I first heard of the program while I was studying in Israel for my year abroad (1999). That’s when Nishmat (the Jeanie Schottenstein Center for Advanced Torah Study for Women in Jerusalem) graduated their first three or four yoatzot halachot. … I studied in the graduate program for advanced Talmudic studies at Stern College, which is a two-year program for women including Gemara as well as Jewish law, and the second year we spent studying the laws of family purity intensively, and I found that they were extremely fascinating.
When my husband became the rabbi at the synagogue at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, I began to teach a lot more brides, and as the rebbetzin I began to receive many questions in this area of law. I was able to answer a lot of them, but at a certain point there were questions that I was receiving that were extremely complex, that I didn’t have the answers to, and I began to feel frustrated because I felt that if I had more training, both in the halachic text as well as the intersecting areas of women’s health, I’d be able to be a resource to even more women.
AJT: You were still in New York at this time?
Sinensky: Yes. After some time there I received a phone call from a colleague of mine saying they’d be starting a program in the United States, and would I be interested in joining? That was around the time when I was feeling that I really wanted to be able to help more women. I said yes, and that’s how my present life has evolved to where it is today.
AJT: The position of yoetzet halacha seems to be prevalent within Modern Orthodoxy. Are there any yoatzot halacha in the Orthodox community or working with Orthodox synagogues?
Sinensky: I’m not sure how you’re distinguishing between Orthodox and Modern Orthodox. … I would say all the yoatzot halacha that I know identify with Modern Orthodoxy, and I would say that all of the shuls that have employed yoatzot halacha identify with Modern Orthodoxy. There are women who I think would align themselves with different movements within Judaism … that do ask questions to yoatzot halacha even if their shul has not hired one. So yoatzot halacha receive questions from a wide spectrum of women.
AJT: Are you typically hired to be a yoetzet halacha for a synagogue or for a community? How does that usually work?
Sinensky: There are different models. One is that one shul hires a yoetzet halacha for their shul, and no yoetzet halacha is going to say to a woman that calls from a different shul that she won’t answer her question.
There is a model where a group of synagogues will get together. There’s this model in Manhattan, where a group of synagogues get together and they hire a yoetzet halacha for the Manhattan area.
And then the model that I have here in Philadelphia is that I work for the Yoetzet Initiative, which is an organization of women who felt there was a need in the community. They felt this, based on having their pulse on where women were at in their community, and they started the Yoetzet Initiative, and they fundraised and garnered support to hire a yoetzet halacha. There are other yoetzet initiatives in other communities.
AJT: What was your background growing up?
Sinensky: I always identified as Modern Orthodox. I went to Modern Orthodox day schools. I went to Modern Orthodox high school. I went to Modern Orthodox seminary. I went to Stern College. I’m straight up Modern Orthodox from birth to now. I fully identify with the Modern Orthodox community. I’m proud to be Modern Orthodox.
AJT: How would you encapsulate the function of a yoetzet halacha?
Sinensky: I conceptualize the position as one that is sanctioned by hundreds of rabbis in the United States and abroad, that basically provides opportunities for qualified and passionate women to learn these laws at a high level and to use their knowledge to serve the Jewish community. …
I am passionate about learning. I am passionate about helping people observe Jewish law, and for me this position is a way for me to fuse those together and to really use my knowledge as a way to help people observe Jewish law in a way that is correct and a way that feels comfortable.
AJT: Considering the movement is less than 20 years old, do you think the position is fairly well known in communities today?
Sinensky: I think, especially within the Modern Orthodox community, many people are familiar with yoatzot halacha, and they’ve either heard about them, they’ve been exposed to them, they have one, they’ve called Nishmat’s hotline in Israel, or they’ve sent in a question to Nishmat’s website. So yoatzot halacha are accessible, especially in the age of social media, in a lot of different ways.
AJT: Do you take calls from women outside the specific synagogues that have hired you?
Sinensky: I receive calls from women across the spectrum of Jewish observance, mostly from women who are Modern Orthodox and to the right of Modern Orthodox.
AJT: Do men ever seek your counsel?
Sinensky: Most of the people that ask me questions are women, but I do serve men in the sense that the answers that I give, and the conversations that I have with their wives, obviously impact the men. I have received a few calls from men in the past, in very specific, unique cases, but it is not the norm. …
In previous generations, when yoatzot halacha didn’t exist, the men were basically always the go-between between their wives and the rabbi, and I think a lot of men are happy to extricate themselves from being the middleman, so to speak, and a lot of things can get lost in translation. There are just so many challenges with that model, even though it has functioned for centuries.
I think many women, and this is why Rabbanit Henkin started this position, … are happy and would actually prefer to have the support of someone who directly identifies with their issues. Not that the rabbis don’t know what they are talking about, but the nature of this topic is so intimate and involves disclosing intimate details about their bodies and their relationships. A lot of women feel more comfortable speaking about these issues with a woman. They have really taken advantage of this opportunity to have that comfort and be able to ask more specific questions and divulge more information so they are able to get answers that are most appropriate for their situations.
I think that it’s really a gift when a community hires a yoetzet halacha because the rabbi is making a statement that he wants all of the women in the community to feel comfortable asking questions and that it’s really important that all women and all couples are able to observe halacha in the most appropriate manner.