New Orthodox Group Puts Israeli Women at Its Head

'Beit Hillel' hopes to counter creeping religious extremism.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

A new national-religious rabbinical group that will include women in its leadership as equals is to be launched on Wednesday.

The group, to be known as Beit Hillel, already has 110 rabbis signed up, along with 30 women who are considered Torah scholars. It was founded by congregational rabbis in the central region, who say they represent the silent majority of the national-religious population that is frustrated and alarmed by creeping extremism and the deterioration of women's status in the sector.

Beit Hillel director Oshra Koren, left, with Pnina Neubirt.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Beit Hillel is granting participating women equal voting rights and influence in the organization.

"We cannot remain silent anymore; we have to state our position clearly," said Oshra Koren, the director of the Raanana branch of Matan, an institute of advanced Torah study for women based in Jerusalem.

She and a group of 10 rabbis who lead Modern Orthodox congregations formulated the plan after receiving persistent calls from congregants to do something.

"The need for such an organization has been evident for some time," Koren said. "But the frustration grew following the recent events involving the exclusion of women.

"The big push came when women who know my views urged me to express them publicly," she said. "People are thirsty for guidance from our leadership on all public issues and news events, and they are frustrated that there has been no clear, balanced and nuanced statement on these questions, as if we are distancing ourselves from religious-Zionist values."

The organizers note that unlike rabbinic groups in the Hardal (Ultra-Orthodox-nationalist ) stream, in Beit Hillel congregational rabbis will set the tone, rather than yeshiva heads, who, the founders say, are less in tune with the needs of households and families.

The women involved are either educators in post-secondary Torah programs for women who are seen as Torah scholars in their own right, or are rabbis's wives who are influential in their congregations and communities.

Founding conference

Tomorrow there will be a founding conference in Netanya, at which members will decide how to implement the founders' manifesto, which states that members, "encourage women's empowerment, oppose discrimination and racism, support democracy, see themselves as an integral part of Israeli society and are loyal to the State of Israel and its institutions, including the IDF, the police, and the courts."

The conference will be addressed by Rabbi Yuval Cherlow of the Petah Tikva hesder yeshiva, Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz and Rabbanit Malka Bina, the founder of Matan and a pioneer in promoting advanced Torah study for women.

A first step will apparently be to establish a beit midrash that will examine the halakhic issues relating to women's roles in public positions and in the synagogue.

"It can't be that women, who do everything in every field, have no [religious] standing," Koren said. "Women must be partners in the halakhic discourse."

Several of Beit Hillel's founding rabbis are active in existing groups, such as Tzohar. But Tzohar, these rabbis say, has chosen to remain neutral on issues dividing the national-religious camp.

While Beit Hillel prefers to stress its positive positions, the group's founding reflects the growing rift within the religious-Zionist sector.

"To our great sorrow, religious Zionism is already split," said Rabbi Chaim Navon, rabbi of the Shimshoni congregation in Modi'in. "But only one faction's voice was being heard. We are the voice of the other part, that hasn't been sufficiently heard."