Pioneering course will change the landscape


Ten students are gearing up to start the Chief Rabbi's first training programme for women religious educators next month.

When they complete the part-time 18-month course, they will earn the title of "maayan", a unique qualification for Orthodox women in the UK.

While the course will focus on taharat hamishpachah, the laws of family purity, it will go beyond mikveh-related questions to broader issues of women's health, including pregnancy, contraception, abortion and infertility.

The new course reflects a wish both to create role models for female Orthodox educators as well as meet the need of women who might feel more comfortable talking to other women rather than a rabbi on matters such as family purity.

"This is the perfect programme for me," said Raisel Freedman, one of the women selected from 30 applicants to the course.

From her conversations with women across the Orthodox spectrum, she believes until now there has been a lack of an infrastructure to provide women with the religious guidance they seek.

"There are phenomenal women in the community already who are fantastic educators," she said, "but it is hard for communities to find who they are and how to access them."

While Dayan Shmuel Simons of the London Beth Din will take the lead in the halachic components of the programme, medical tuition will come from the University College London's Institute for Women's Health.

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis himself will teach on part of the course focusing on community education.

Ms Freedman, 26, who works as the executive assistant to the head of Partnerships for Jewish Schools, said a major attraction of the course was its "holistic" approach, which encompassed not only Jewish law and medicine but "also the psychological side to be able to counsel people".

Eight of the 10 students are rebbetzins, such as Shoshana Landau, 27, from Kingston and Surbiton Synagogue.

One is from outside London - Nechama Atlas, rebbetzin of Yeshurun Synagogue in Cheadle.

"An engaged rebbetzin, as I choose to be, is heavily involved in community education," Mrs Landau said.

"That was the reason I made the application. I am passionate about the role of females in Orthodox Judaism."

The Chief Rabbi chose the title "ma'ayan", an abbreviation of the phrase from Psalms, meirat einayim, "who enlightens the eyes". Ma'ayan also means "fountain" or "spring", alluding to the traditional comparison of the Torah with life-giving water.

Mrs Landau said: "I don't think the calling card of the programme is to simply get women to use the mikveh. It's a lot more wide-reaching than that. It's about enthusing women in their Judaism.

"It's about providing women, who might be on the fringe because of the lack of female community leaders, with access to female leaders."

How the ma'ayanot will operate in practice is yet to be worked out, but the scheme will ensure that

a central pool of educators will be in place.

"I think it's great to have a platform that's recognised," Mrs Landau said.

A ma'ayan will not necessarily be "tethered" to a particular congregation, but free to work across a group of communities, she said.

While people in search of advice can currently ask their local Orthodox rabbi questions, in the future they will be able to ask their local ma'ayan.

Ms Freedman, who is a graduate of the Susi Bradfield programme for women educators from the London School of Jewish Studies, said as yet she does not have "a defined landing ground" for what she does after completing her studies.

The first ma'ayanot will to some extent be pioneers who will carve out a role for themselves.

"We are all passionate about the programme and keen to make the most of it," Mrs Freedman said. "I would want to be putting myself forward and to help as much as possible."

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