Lechi Lach to a land that I will show you. Lech lecha to a place you do not know. Lechi lach on your journey I will bless you. And you shall be a blessing, lechi lach.
The voices of hundreds of women join together to sing these words from Debbie Friedman’s “Lechi Lach,” in Hebrew, English, Spanish, and Russian at the beginning of every Masorti Study Day in Israel.
Masorti women have been studying together for almost 14 years, thanks to the creative input and support of Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, the Schechter Institutes in Jerusalem, and the Masorti (Conservative) movement. This winter, over 400 people attended at least one of three study days around the country. Some traveled for hours to get to the closest session, at Kibbutz Hanaton in the north, Be’er Sheva in the south or Kfar Saba in the central region. And every June, over 350 women travel to the Jerusalem campus of the Schechter Institutes for a culminating event.
The theme this winter was about finding spirituality in unexpected places. “Each year we come up with a new theme and we try to include topics that appeal to women of every age and level of observance and Jewish knowledge,” said Diane Friedgut, the Women’s League liaison in Israel and the founder and coordinator of the days of learning. The study days always revolve around an important issue, explained Friedgut. “We are trying in our own way to address problems in Israeli society where women can have an impact.”
This year’s classes included text study about women who have been erased from our holidays – that is, whose names have been removed from texts – mikveh workshops, hevruta study, Conservative responsa on women wearing a tallit, and experiences with meditation, songs and prayer. Classes are held in all four languages so there really is something for everyone.
Friedgut organizes the days of learning with a committee of 126 women representing almost every Masorti kehilla, congregation, in Israel. At the planning meetings, ideas are thrown out, discussed and synthesized to capture a theme. Friedgut’s granddaughter, Ayelet Kon Blumenthal, helps develop the theme and the classes. “It is interesting to see how each lecturer approaches the theme,” said Joan Kedem, one of the assistant coordinators.
The initial study days came about 15 years ago when Friedgut, who made aliyah in 1983 from New Rochelle, New York, met with the then president of Women’s League Janet Tobin, who is now president of MERCAZ, the Zionist organization of Conservative Judaism. Women’s League was looking for an educational project for Masorti congregations and Friedgut had just participated in a workshop for women leaders from around the country. “When Janet brought up the idea of an educational project, I knew a study experience could bring Masorti women together,” said Friedgut.
Most of the staff is connected in some way to the Schechter Institutes and all are experienced Jewish educators. Professor Alice Shalvi has been involved with the study days from their inception. Shalvi, who is retired after serving as Schechter’s chair/rector, is the program’s advisor. “I help with the project because I am a feminist, and because I strongly believe in women’s Torah study. This was something that was missing from the Masorti movement,” she said.
“The traditional exclusion of women from the three houses of Judaism – the beit midrash (house of study), beit knesset (house of worship) and beit din (house of law) has had a pernicious affect even on non-Orthodox Jews in Israel, where Orthodoxy remains the official form of Judaism.” Through study, she says, women gain knowledge and self-confidence and become more involved in Judaism and their kehillot.
Why a women-only study day? Organizers feel there is something very special about women studying together. It is a way for them to build community, and this sense of connection is one of the goals of the project. “I go to all of the study days. You get to see people you know from the different kehillot who you wouldn’t see otherwise.” says Kedem.
Friedgut agrees. “I feel personally connected to most of the women who attend the study days even though they number in the hundreds. Maybe we have spoken to each other or we have communicated by email. I feel that, just like the song we sing at every session, we are embarking on a journey together.”
Another goal of the project is to spur women to continue studying. Indeed, some kehillot have formed Rosh Chodesh groups so women can learn together every month. Some of the women go on to take degrees at Schechter. For instance, after participating in the study days, Christina Muso, who made aliyah from Argentina, traveled from Nazareth to study at Schechter. She also founded the Masorti kehilla Bet El Nazeret.
Heidi Gleit made aliyah from Philadelphia in 1994. She is a life-long Conservative Jew who experienced first-hand the silencing of women when she was saying Kaddish for her brother. “I would go into an Orthodox synagogue and men told me to shut up or leave,” she said. After that, Gleit became active in the Masorti movement and started to attend the women’s days of study.
“I first went to the Schechter Institutes when I attended the Jerusalem study day,” says Gleit. “Being able to study with hundreds of other women who take Judaism seriously was inspiring.” Now she commutes from Tel Aviv and is studying for an MA in the status of women and Israel studies.
“There is no doubt that the study days have enriched the lives of women, and they in turn enrich their communities,” says Shalvi. “To see and hear them pray together, lifting their voices in song, to observe them engage in study is to be inspired, to be aware of the truth that study is the main source of Jewish faith.”