A Room of Their Own

Sarra Levine and Rochelle Robins began sharing their dreams threeyears ago, during a long car ride from the Michigan Women’s MusicFestival to Philadelphia.

“I always knew I wanted to start a politically minded organizationthat was Jewish and focused on women,” Robins says. “I also wanted tocreate the school I sought but couldn’t find.”

Levine and Robins spent the next three years raising funds andrecruiting faculty and students, all in preparation for themuch-anticipated opening of their Bat Kol program — a six-week-longbeit midrash — in Jerusalem this summer.

“We need a place where people can study Jewish texts from afeminist perspective because issues of gender are at the forefront ofwhat society is dealing with now, and if we don’t recognize that inJudaism, we’ll be cutting out half of the Jewish community,” saysRobins.

Levine grew up in a traditional Jewish home, keeping kosher andattending a “Conservadox” synagogue on Shabbat. Ten years ago,Levine, then 23, was living at the Women’s Peace Camp at Seneca,N.Y., site of the world’s second-largest nuclear storage depot. AtSeneca, says Levine, “I was exposed to a lot of leftistanti-Semitism. So I started wearing a kippah.” She kept it on whenshe went back to Ithaca, N.Y., where she had been living.

“Women would come up to me and say, ‘I was Jewish once,’ or ‘Ididn’t know a woman could wear a kippah,’ and I started understandingjust how many alienated Jewish women there were out there. Most hadleft Judaism because they felt there was no room there for them. So Idecided I wanted to create a space for those women, where they couldbe Jews and feminists at the same time.”

Levine’s next step was to go to rabbinical school, where she wouldmeet rabbinical student Rochelle Robins, the daughter of a Reformrabbi from San Jose, Calif. It wasn’t long before they discovered theshared dream of a special room for women.

Among the 15 women studying in the beit midrash are three who holdlaw degrees, three with doctorates and one with an MBA. And they’rehaving the time of their lives.

“It is rich to be here,” says Dr. Marcy Epstein, a lecturer inwomen’s studies and English literature at the University of Michigan.Epstein grew up in Deal, N.J., at a time when girls were justbeginning to be allowed to read haftarahs in synagogue. “I didn’tlearn these wonderful things that might have enriched my life,” shesays. “[At Bat Kol], I don’t have to divide myself as a Jew and as awomen.”

Levine and Robins assembled an array of notable women instructors,including Dr. Rachel Adler; Dr. Susannah Heschel; Dr. Debbie Weisman,head of Jerusalem’s Kerem Institute, where the beit midrash ishoused; Rabbi Einat Ramon, the first Israeli woman to have beenordained as a rabbi; and Leah Shakdiel, the first woman to sit on areligious council. The days are divided into classes taught by theteachers on particular texts, chevruta study, more classes,expressive-arts workshops and volunteering in social-changeorganizations.

“Part of a feminist framework is to give at least as much as wetake,” says Robins. “We felt it was important for our students tolearn about organizations in Israel working for social change.”

Shatil, the technical-support arm of the New Israel Fund, helpedBat Kol with the placements.

Robins and Levine are young, earnest and committed; they alsolaugh a lot. Part of their project involves exploring just what itmeans to study Torah as feminists. One difference is that the womentend to explore together rather than argue — the same differencesthat researchers have found when they study the way men and womenconverse.

“This is my life’s dream,” says Shakdiel, who is teaching Talmudduring the program’s fourth week. “There’s been a flowering ofwomen’s Torah study; it’s become the norm, and that in itself makesme happy. What’s special here is that there is a feministperspective, which is rare but important. And every evening, there isan attempt to integrate what was learned through the arts. It’s veryspecial.”

The program focused on feminist theology during the first week,sexuality during the second, social action during the third, and landand nationality during the fourth.

The atmosphere at the beit midrash is serious and intense. “Atother batei midrash, you can sometimes walk in and hear peopletalking about the news or their lives,” says Levine. “Here, we can’teven convince them to take a coffee break.”

The women seem intent on learning rather than arguing. During theweek on land and nationality, not much “feminist anger” is apparent.But Levine points out that it hasn’t been that way all along. “Whenwe were studying Talmudic texts on rape, one woman walked out inanger.

“What’s going on in this room is a struggle. We have a loverrelationship with the text. We get really furious at it sometimes,and we also recognize its beauty.”

Says Dr. Debbie Weisman: “Usually, people who are veryknowledgeable of Jewish texts don’t have a feminist outlook, and,usually, feminists don’t have much knowledge of Jewish texts. If youcan bring the two together, then something creative and interestingfor the Jewish people can happen.”

Rabbi Danny Landes, director of the Pardes Institute of JewishStudies, in which men and women study together, welcomes the idea ofa feminist beit midrash. “I think this is a fine, legitimate thing todo,” he says. “But as a beit midrash with a particular focus, theywill face several challenges: One, making sure the creativity goeshand in hand with deep scholarship; two, they will face the samechallenge that male batei midrash face — that is, the limitations ofhaving only one gender. And, three, an ideological beit midrash,whether it’s Shas or National Religious, results in a certainconformity. Torah study should explode ideology and conformity.

“But I wish them lots of luck. I give them a bracha.”