For the Times of Israel by Jenni Frazer February 15 2016
Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, has launched a groundbreaking qualification for Jewish women, the “Ma’ayan” course.
Starting in September 2016, the prestigious course is planned to attract Jewish women who want to play a greater role as educators in their communities.
A year in the planning, the “Ma’ayan” – which means “spring” or “fountain” – will consist of three components: study of the Jewish laws of family purity, taught by Dayan Shmuel Simons of the London Beth Din; academic study about women’s health and related medical issues, to be taught by senior lecturers from University College, London; and pedagogical training focusing on adult education, so that the Ma’ayanot will be able to run community education projects. Some of these latter classes will be taught by Chief Rabbi Mirvis himself.
Rabbi Mirvis’s last post before becoming chief rabbi in 2013 was at Finchley Synagogue, where he appointed Britain’s first – and so far only – female halachic adviser, Lauren Levin.
But officials in the Office of the Chief Rabbi (OCR) say that the Ma’ayan course is intended to go much further. “Some rabbis have been crying out for such an initiative,” one official told the ToI. “The chief rabbi is well aware that there is a pool of talent, represented by Jewish women in the UK, which is not currently being harnessed”.
Since there were many intimate issues of Jewish law which some women felt uncomfortable about discussing with their rabbi, it was hoped that the new qualification would provide educated female experts, who would bring an extra dimension with their academic training, and community commitment.
The academic side of the course, which will complement the halachic module, will provide a thorough grounding in women’s health issues, from genetic testing to psychosexual issues and disorders, infertility and IVF.
The third component of the course, the community education arm, is a particular pet project of the chief rabbi, who is known to feel that more adult education could be run by educated and informed Jewish women. “That is a skill set which I have long considered an essential ingredient for Jewish life to flourish”, said Chief Rabbi Mirvis. All the candidates will be required to carry out a practical project, to deliver an educational program in a community and act on feedback and response to it.
The idea is that women from the first cohort of graduates – probably between five and 10 women in all – will each be assigned to a cluster of synagogue communities and will then be responsible for dealing with many questions relating to women’s roles within modern Orthodox Judaism.
OCR officials say that the 18-month-long course, details of which were being presented to United Synagogue rabbis on Monday February 15, will have a very stringent application process. Candidates for the first cohort are being sought by recommendation. It is not intended to be a response to moves in the Orthodox world to gain a female equivalent to rabbinical ordination, such as the “Rabba” courses currently being run in the United States.
Stephen Pack, president of the United Synagogue, said: “This exciting initiative is a great credit to the Chief Rabbi. I am sure that many of our women members will greatly benefit from having a qualified Ma’ayan in their community. It is a truly significant development for the United Synagogue and for the future of UK Jewry”.
Enthusiastic OCR officials believed that the project, unique in diaspora communities, was “imaginative and creative, and has the approval of the Chief Rabbi and the London Beth Din. It’s a qualification that should inspire women throughout modern Orthodoxy.”