(JTA) — Sefaria, the app that contains a digital collection of Jewish texts, has made everything from Genesis to an essay on Jewish law and gambling accessible at the tap of a finger.
But in one way, it’s the same as nearly every other Jewish library in history: Almost all the texts, from ancient times to the present, are written by men.
Now, Sefaria is hoping to chip away at that gender disparity by organizing and supporting a group of 20 women Torah scholars who are writing new books on Jewish texts.
“It’s relatively recent in the history of the Jewish people that women have had access to as full a Jewish education as men,” Sara Wolkenfeld, chief learning officer at Sefaria, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “And so it’s even more recent that women are able to create those works.”
She added, “When I spoke to women about this, I discovered more and more that there were amazing women teaching Torah and many fewer women who were being encouraged to write books of Torah and really have the scaffolding in place to do that.”
The participants in the new program, called Word-by-Word, range from ordained clergy to academics and teachers. They have expertise in subjects ranging from early modern Jewish studies to Jewish thought and Talmud. Most of them are affiliated with Orthodox institutions or received Orthodox ordination. There are no non-Orthodox rabbis on the list.
Non-Orthodox women have been receiving rabbinic ordination for more than half a century, and recent decades have seen the proliferation of advanced Orthodox Jewish educational institutions geared toward women. In recent years, a growing number of Orthodox women have received ordination as clergy as well.
Word-by-Word aims to parlay their expertise into texts about topics such as Sephardic women’s halacha and rabbinic literature, villains of the Torah, and environmental ethics. Many but not all of the planned books will cover women’s issues: Rabbanit Leah Sarna aims to produce a pregnancy and childbirth guide for observant Jewish women and Gila Fine in Israel will explore the six women named in the Babylonian Talmud, for example, while Adina Blaustein in Ohio will produce a book rooted in the weekly Torah portion.
The program will provide the selected scholars with a support system that will help them put their knowledge down on paper — and, crucially, will pay them to do so. Cohort members will receive $6,000 per year for three years to support their work and will also get professional coaching, peer mentoring and networking opportunities with publishers and authors. The goal is for at least 15 to publish books by the program’s end, in 2026.
Erica Brown, director of the Sacks-Herenstein Center and vice provost for values and leadership at Yeshiva University, is leading the program with Wolkenfeld at Sefaria. (Sefaria’s CEO, Daniel Septimus, is on the board of 70 Faces Media, JTA’s parent organization.)
“Word-by-Word is the program I most needed when I started writing books about 15 years ago,” Brown said in a statement. “I needed help articulating my table of contents, editing myself down, structuring my ideas, writing a proposal, and then connecting to publishers,” she said. “There is a huge difference between knowing how to write and knowing how to publish a book.”
“Writing can also be lonely,” she added. “But it doesn’t have to be. With Word-by-Word, we’ll be creating a new Jewish sisterhood.”
The program builds on a sisterhood that has been growing for some time — of Orthodox women engaged in leading Jewish communities. Many of the cohort’s members are themselves graduates of, or teach at, Orthodox women’s educational institutions. At least seven of the 20 have spent time at Yeshivat Maharat, a liberal Orthodox institution that ordains women clergy. Others are affiliated with Orthodox campuses such as Yeshiva University in New York City or Bar-Ilan University outside of Tel Aviv, or Orthodox high schools or synagogues.
At least six of the cohort members are PhDs whose academic work mostly focuses on Jewish texts. Others are senior educators or hold prominent positions at Jewish educational institutions or nonprofits ranging from the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies to the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.
The funders of Word-by-Word include three foundations that have supported Orthodox women’s learning and advancement: Micah Philanthropies, which allocated nearly a quarter of its grant money from 2021-2022 to Orthodox women’s leadership; the Walder Foundation, which has given grants to projects focused on Orthodox women’s education and leadership; and the Arev Fund, which has provided funding to Yeshivat Maharat, the educational center Nishmat, and other organizations geared toward Orthodox women.
Word-by-Word was open to women of all denominations and its organizers aimed for their advertising to reach a broad Jewish audience. But Wolkenfeld estimates that somewhere between 50% and 75% of the 122 women who applied were, judging from the applicants’ resumes, “plausibly Orthodox.” She also said the cohort’s denominational breakdown may have been a result of the program call for projects that closely analyzed Jewish texts.
“We got a lot of applications that were not actually close analysis of Jewish texts, but rather more, like, writing about themes in Jewish texts,” Wolkenfeld said. “To have a fellowship that was even more diverse, we probably would have needed to have different criteria.”
A predecessor to Word-by-Word launched in 2021, when Sefaria and Yeshivat Maharat partnered to create a writing fellowship for Jewish women scholars. Participants received training and, at the program’s conclusion, each presented a 3,000-word piece at a virtual event. The 14 scholars and rabbis who participated in that program included graduates of Orthodox, Conservative and transdenominational rabbinical schools.
Pamela Barmash, a Conservative rabbi and a professor of Hebrew Bible at Washington University in St. Louis, who is not involved in Word-by-Word, said the absence of non-Orthodox rabbis means “the full orchestra of voices that make up the Jewish community is not there.”
“We only see part of the colors in the spectrum,” she said. “We only see pieces of the Jewish world and we’re missing much of the vitality and creativity and initiative that is found in the rest of the Jewish world.”
Wolkenfeld is an alumna of several Jewish educational institutions and said she feels the increasing gender diversity she sees in institutions of Torah learning has been a boon. Soon, she hopes, some of the women she has studied with will see their names on those institutions’ bookshelves.
“As opposed to where we were, let’s say, 20 years ago,” she said, “I think we now have had the chance to start reaping the benefits of what happens when you have both men and women involved in learning Torah and teaching Torah and disseminating Torah.”
Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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