Henkin’s revolution

Twenty-five years after the establishment of Nishmat, a center for advanced Torah Study for women, its founder reflects on the challenges and inroads made by the organization.

A class taught by international speaker Rachelle Fraenkel, at Nishmat (photo credit: SARA FEFFER)
A class taught by international speaker Rachelle Fraenkel, at Nishmat
(photo credit: SARA FEFFER)
A quarter century after she founded Nishmat, the Jeanie Schottenstein Center for Advanced Torah Study for Women in Jerusalem, Rabbanit Chana Henkin never fails to feel delight when witnessing the fruit of her labor.
“When I walk into the beit midrash humming with students, I still feel a rush of adrenaline and gratitude to Hakadosh Baruch Hu [the Holy One, blessed be He]. After 25 years, it’s not passé,” says Henkin.
She recently received an honorary doctorate from Bar-Ilan University in recognition of her role as a “path-blazing community leader,” especially in regard to her 1999 founding of Nishmat’s Keren Ariel Yoatzot Halacha Program in Jerusalem with a satellite program in the United States. This groundbreaking two-year course of rigorous study qualifies graduates to advise other women on the intricacies of family purity laws as they interface with cutting-edge issues in women’s health, from fertility to sexuality to family planning to female medical conditions.
This summer, the 100th yoetzet Halacha will receive her certification. Henkin’s revolution has garnered 250,000 halachic questions from women across the globe as well as broad rabbinical support in Israel’s national-religious community.
The yoatzot (certified advisers) are accessed through Nishmat’s Golda Koschitzky Women’s Halachic Hotline (02-640-4343; in the US and Canada 1-877-yoetzet – 1-877-963-8938), Nishmat’s Women’s Health and Halacha website (www.yoatzot.org) and through affiliations with about 30 North American Orthodox synagogues.
The yoatzot are part of a full-time Nishmat student population of 150, including a gap-year program for posthigh school students, with hundreds more in summer programs in Israel and abroad. Henkin’s resolve to reach across dividing lines has resulted in a diverse student body of native Israelis, Ethiopian immigrants, English-speakers and Eastern Europeans. There is a program for beginners, including women studying for conversion, as well as an active community-service arm.
“Nishmat was an idea I had for a long time, but not the expectation that I would do it,” Henkin explains.
When Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women piloted a one-semester trial class in Talmud, she – Chana Lazarus, class of 1968 – was one of only two registrants. “Our teacher, Rabbi Chaim Yitzhak Levine, of blessed memory, taught us voluntarily after that semester,” she says. (Stern later instituted undergraduate and graduate talmudic studies for women.) “No place in the world existed then for a woman who wanted to sit and learn in the classic beit midrash mode.
“I knew my life was bound with Torah, so I did what was possible in my time. Back then, a woman could get close enough to the pot to smell the cholent without tasting it,” she says. So she enrolled in a master’s program at YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, delving on her own into rabbinic responsa.
Her master’s thesis initially was rejected on the assumption it was ghostwritten by her husband.
“They couldn’t imagine a woman would be interested in the development of legislative authority in early Ashkenazi communities,” she says. “I got my degree about a decade later and eventually got an honorary degree from Yeshiva University for opening the highest reaches of Torah learning to women, so there is poetic justice,” she adds with a smile.
Chana Lazarus of Spring Valley, New York, and Yehuda Henkin of New Haven, Connecticut, met as teenagers through the youth arm of the Mizrachi movement, of which Yehuda Henkin was then president.
They married in 1971. The grandson and disciple of the preeminent halachic authority Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin of New York, the younger Henkin graduated from Columbia University and became a respected halachic authority in his own right.
“I was a full partner with my wife in starting Nishmat,” says the rabbi, who has served as the institution’s rabbinic authority since its inception in 1990.
They made aliya not long after marrying. After almost a year in Tel Aviv, they settled in Beit She’an.
“We looked for a development town because we were young and wanted to make a contribution where we were needed,” the rabbanit explains.
Her husband served in the rabbinate of the Beit She’an Valley and northward, while she started out as a teacher, then as assistant principal at the Beit She’an religious high school, and later spearheaded informal Jewish education through the region’s religious council. Among her accomplishments was increasing the number of women using the local mikve (ritual bath) each night from six to 26.
The Henkins may have been the only Ashkenazi family in Beit She’an at the time, and apparently the only native English-speakers. They decided to raise their four sons and two daughters in a Hebrew-only household.
“Those formative years affected our place in Israeli society,” she says. “We found our place within the national-religious mainstream, and our children are thoroughly Israeli.”
The six children and “a tribe of grandchildren” live all over Israel; toys tucked under tables in the Henkins’ living room attest to frequent visits. The second generation includes rabbis, educators, published authors, a computer programmer and a lecturer in the IDF Officers College.
When the family moved to Jerusalem, the rabbanit began leading text-based Torah classes for groups of mostly young, Ivy League-educated English-speaking women. Some of these women expressed frustration over the lack of rigorous advanced Torah studies for females, and appealed to Henkin to fill the void.
“My husband and I did a lot of soul-searching because we realized it would change our lives. Our youngest child was then only two. But the women in the group reminded me of myself at their age. I was moved by the poignancy of their search for Torah, and therefore I said it’s time to get up and do something.”
She emphasizes that the founding of Nishmat “wasn’t coming from a place of gender but from a place of thirst for Torah. Women’s learning preceded Orthodox feminism in Israel. It was the opposite in the United States, and therefore provoked controversy, whereas here it was a process of spreading the wings of the Torah world – an extension of Torah values. What we’re known for is melding intellectual challenge and creativity with an unswerving halachic commitment.”
Still, it was a bold move for which the couple could have taken flak from the religious establishment.
“He’s the reason we didn’t take flak,” says the rabbanit, nodding toward her husband, for whom she exudes warm respect in the way she speaks to and about him. “Rav Henkin was already recognized as a talmid hacham [authoritative Torah scholar] by his colleagues. Rabbis turned to him with questions. By the time we established Nishmat, he had already published three books of responsa. His erudition, brilliance, halachic creativity, and integrity were well known; and with my activism, we developed a partnership that apparently has changed the landscape for women in Orthodoxy.”
Though several institutions have since followed in the path of Nishmat, it remains unique for its range of programs and especially for its Yoetzet Halacha track.
“There’s no question that our yoatzot have changed the way the [Orthodox] world looks at women’s needs,” says the rabbanit.
“Younger women today can’t imagine a world without yoatzot. We have a principle that the Torah’s ways must be pleasant – you can’t sit back and let people suffer – and our yoatzot are bringing halachic solutions to problems that would otherwise mar thousands of lives. They are also performing a kiddush Hashem [sanctification of God’s name] by putting a contemporary, friendly face on Halacha, and giving women dignity in their religious lives.”
Although the haredi sector does not publicly endorse the program, it has been embraced by the national- religious rabbinate and laity.
“Our nonconfrontational approach has enabled us to build a sturdy consensus,” says Henkin. “It’s an achievement whose impact has been profound.”
She is no less pleased by the inroads made by Nishmat’s college-prep track for Ethiopian Israelis, which combines Judaic and secular studies and offers a joint college program as well. One out of every four dormitory beds on Nishmat’s campus in Jerusalem’s Pat neighborhood is reserved for a young woman in this program.
“Most of the [Ethiopian] students stay with us for four years. Almost 100 percent of them get into college and into the Israeli professional mainstream as educators, lawyers, social workers, nurses and more, at three to four times the national average for Ethiopian academics,” says Henkin. “There’s a tremendous per-capita investment in each student.”
The 45 participants get one-on-one mentorship, social support and career counseling, English-language tutoring, and workshops in computer skills, time management, personal empowerment and dealing with domestic violence.
“They are encouraged to build pride in their own heritage, which enables them to express themselves from a place of strength,” says Henkin.
Nor are the disadvantaged beyond the walls of the campus ignored. The working- class Pat neighborhood was chosen as Nishmat’s permanent home because it affords an opportunity for service and outreach.
Approximately 85 students per year volunteer in the community, and Nishmat opens its campus for a children’s story hour, food pantry, bridal-gown lending service, bat-mitzva program, women’s classes and holiday events.
Henkin defines Zionism as “a readiness to pioneer to build up the state,” and says this has been “a major factor in our life’s decisions and our children’s life decisions.”
“You can’t separate Zionism from the recognition of God’s providence in the miracle of Israel’s existence. Each generation has its own language, but active devotion to the state, and readiness for self-sacrifice when needed, are still very much alive in Israel,” she says.
American Friends of Nishmat sponsored a 25th anniversary dinner last May. Additional silver anniversary celebrations will be planned next spring when a major campus renovation is completed.