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What brings more than 30 women to a class in Netanya every other week to study Jewish texts? They have joined the MATAN network of more than 1,000 women in communities throughout Israel who enjoy studying Torah together. The lectures are in English, the topics are chosen by participants, and enthusiasm abounds in an open atmosphere of interactive discussion, questioning and learning.
The Netanya lecture series is part of MATAN's outreach program designed to make Torah studies available to women across the country.
Based in Jerusalem, the MATAN organization has its Ra'anana branch at the Adat Bnei Israel synagogue on Rehov Abarbanel, where attendance has grown to more than 600 women, who attend a range of weekly courses in either Hebrew or English. MATAN has branched out and established lecture series in Petah Tikva, Hashmonaim, Beit Shemesh, Netanya and Ramat Aviv.
Eight years ago, word spread when Oshra Koren, director of MATAN in the Sharon region, spoke at an Emunah meeting in Netanya.
"We were very impressed by this young and dynamic woman and found we had a population of women who were thirsty to learn," says Doreen Usden, a founder of the MATAN lecture series in Netanya.
Usden, joined by Betty Warrach and Janet Lewis, established a regular lecture series in Netanya. "We felt that a learning experience only for women would be comfortable and less intimidating than a mixed audience - and it has proved rightly so," she says.
"We see ourselves as active participants in our studies. We can ask questions on issues that are more pertinent to women and feel at ease doing so. We recognize the fact that women think on a different level than men, have different educational backgrounds and different viewpoints concerning figures in the Torah. Nevertheless, we want to learn through the original sources, not a simplified version. MATAN was able to provide us with an excellent curriculum from which we are able to choose topics that are meaningful to us, such as prayer, tehilim (psalms) and the relevance of women in the Bible. In addition, the MATAN staff is open to our ideas and has added topics we suggested, such as the stories from the Midrash we are currently studying," says Usden.
Koren says she is delighted. "I see myself as a feminist championing the cause of women learning Torah. I am proud to be a woman and think that women can contribute new and exciting outlooks on Torah, without the restrictions of 'this a woman can learn and this she cannot.'"
Koren began learning with MATAN's founder, Rabbanit Malka Bina, in Jerusalem 17 years ago, after majoring in Jewish studies at university. She was one of the first graduates in MATAN's scholars program, which incorporates intensive study and encourages participants to assume community leadership positions.
Thirteen years ago, Koren moved with her husband, Rabbi Tzvi Koren, to Ra'anana and, with Rabbanit Bina's assistance, opened a MATAN Torah study center for women.
They opened with 100 women enrolled in six classes, and today have 600 women taking 30 classes. "Our goal is to give women the opportunity to study all the realms of the Torah and learn from the sources themselves," states Koren. "Women are so advanced in secular fields, why should we not be advanced in Torah?"
Women of all ages, walks of life and tracks of Judaism attend MATAN lectures. "We have thousands of women on our mailing list," says lecturer Gina Junger. "Some are currently attending classes and others not. Circumstances and schedules change in a person's life. However, we receive the same request over and over: 'I can't come now, but do not take my name off your mailing list.' Women are excited about learning."
MATAN's teachers are also excited about learning, and they make time to keep up with their own studies.
Sue Gelber started taking one Chumash (Bible) class a week 11 years ago, and it snowballed into taking as many classes as possible. "My husband quips that he works so that his wife can go to kollel. He's really very proud, and so are my children. I am much more centered and use my time more efficiently. Moreover, when they see how much I have grown through my studies, they also exhibit a supportive attitude to education. My life and the lives of my family have been enriched," says Gelber, who qualified as a teacher six years ago.
Family relationships are one of the reasons that many of the women attend the classes. "Many of my family members are steeped in knowledge. I feel that due to my studies at MATAN, I can hold my own," says Janet Lewis from Netanya. "That was not always the cases because many women of my generation are strong on the traditions of Judaism but have only a superficial knowledge of the Bible. We are products of the generation when girls went to cheder - and that was it. Now we want to explore and expand our learning."
Exploring in depth is a trademark of MATAN lectures. Each participant is given printed pages that follow the lecturer closely. The source is quoted in the original Hebrew, followed by the translation in English. Commentaries are quoted in their original language and translated, if necessary, into English. MATAN offers every woman an opportunity to learn from a wide range of topics, such as halacha, Bible, Talmud or Jewish philosophy, and continue her exploration through traditional and contemporary sources.
"We began eight years ago with the Book of Kings," relates Lewis, "and truthfully, the women found this historical work a bit difficult. So, after consulting with Gina Junger our lecturer, we decided upon an in-depth lecture series concerning prayers and went on to psalms, women in Jewish history, and studying midrashim, the rabbinical essays that accompany biblical texts," she says.
"Judging from the rising numbers of women who attend the bi-weekly lectures on Tuesdays, the MATAN series is successful," continues Lewis. "Living in Israel and being surrounded by Jewishness stimulates our desire to know more. We do not have to be Yentl, the girl who dressed up in boys' clothing in order to learn. MATAN has brought the concept of Torah learning for women into the mainstream. Moreover, there's a nice open atmosphere during the lectures, and our lecturer brings out the best in us."
In addition to conducting classes for adults, Junger and Koren are the joint coordinators of the successful MATAN bat-mitzva program for mothers and daughters. The program started 12 years ago, when a group of women came to MATAN and explained that their sons prepared for bar-mitzva by learning their Torah portion, prayers, and the obligations a young man takes on after the age of 13. "What about our daughters?" they asked.
From this point, Koren and the MATAN staff began developing the bat-mitzva program, now offered in many locations throughout Israel. Last year, 100 mother-and-daughter pairs participated in Ra'anana. The bat-mitzva program has three tracks: for religious participants, mixed classes and secular. All are extremely popular. The syllabus has been translated into English, and this year Koren will implement it in communities in the United States.
"We learn what it means to be a Jewish woman by studying the Jewish heroines, the roles they played and the values they exemplified throughout Jewish history," explains Koren. The mother and daughter study as a hevruta [a study pair]. The learning is always dynamic and fosters a special connection between the two."
In addition to traditional lectures and guided investigation of texts and commentaries, drama, guided imagery and music are also used as learning vehicles. "It's a different experience for each mother and daughter. They are equal partners, each making the effort to learn, grow and understand together," says Koren.
Personal growth, intellectual stimulation and an open and accepting attitude are a few of the reasons why Irene Burg of Netanya enrolled in the MATAN Netanya lecture series on prayer a few years ago. She continues to schedule classes between work commitments and family obligations.
"We might not all become Torah scholars," says Burg. "However, I have grown to see that every piece of Torah learning adds drops of value and enrichment to a person's life."