The Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies, which for more than a decade has operated a yeshiva in the heart of Jerusalem for English-speaking men, celebrated its 11th anniversary this week with the inauguration of its first full-time class of 25 young women from around the world.

According to women's division co-director Rivkah Gestetner – whose husband, Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Shlomo Gestetner, serves as dean of the Mayanot Institute – Jerusalem has been waiting a long time for an intensive learning program for women from all different backgrounds. She stressed that the program's enrollees, who come from South Africa, Australia, Canada and the United States, are not required to have any Hebrew language proficiency, Jewish studies background or religious commitment.

"It is very exciting to provide this environment for them," said Gestetner from Mayanot's new women's campus in the trendy central neighborhood of Katamon. "We're really embarking on something new."

Rabbi Mendy Deren, Mayanot's director for development, couldn't agree more. He pointed out that many of the new students spent some time on Taglit-birthright Israel trips, which the Mayanot Institute helps provide – it's brought more than 20,000 to Israel on its trips – and indicated they wanted more opportunities to learn about their Jewish heritage.

"The program is a result of the great demand for a high-quality women's program over the past few years," said Deren.

Funding from philanthropists George Rohr, Jeffrey Cohen and Rabbi Avremel Silver, and the Gniwisch and Rav-Noy families of Montreal and Los Angeles respectively, together with the Rosenblit family of Moscow, made the initiative possible.

Judging by the reactions of students emerging from their first few classes, the program is a hit. Many were referred to Mayanot by Chabad on Campus centers back home, a fact that organizers stressed was reflective of the input Chabad on Campus had in the development of the program. One teacher spent her formative years as a student at Brandeis University at the Chabad House run by Rabbi Peretz and Chanie Chein.

New student Amy Gordon, 25, of Staten Island, N.Y., heard about the program from Rivkah Slonim, director of education at the Chabad of Binghamton Jewish Student Center. As an undergraduate student at Binghamton University, Gordon went on a Mayanot-administered birthright Israel trip. But after recently completing her master's degree at Touro College, she was hungry for more Jewish exploration.

"It is a great opportunity in my life, to just grow as a person," said Gordon, during a lunch break after a class on Jewish prayer. "It's a new chapter."

Gordon also mentioned that the food was excellent and the dorm rooms were "cozy." A special plus was the hot showers, which depending on one's location in Israel can be an intermittent luxury.

While Gordon came to Mayanot at the relative end of her formal academic career, others found themselves at the women's division during a break in their university studies.

Cassie Moscow, 20, for instance, is in the midst of pursuing a degree at Lakehead University near Toronto through Internet-based instruction. Last summer, she participated in a program run by Rabbi Manis Friedman's Bais Chana International, which provided an introduction to observant Jewish life and Chabad Chasidic thought.

At Mayanot, Moscow was "very, very excited and happy to learn about Chasidut," because she wants to one day start a family based on Chabad teachings.

According to Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov, executive director of Mayanot, one of the program's key strengths lies in its authentic presentation and transmission of Chasidic values.

"Mayanot really brings together the Chasidic component with a unique warmth and academic rigor," he explained.

A Solid Reputation

Participants in the new women's division at the Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies listen to a lecture on Jewish prayer given by Sarah Fuchs.
Participants in the new women's division at the Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies listen to a lecture on Jewish prayer given by Sarah Fuchs.
In fact, it was the Mayanot reputation for academic excellence and uncompromising adherence to Jewish practice that led Johannesburg, South Africa, social worker Oriana Levin, 27, to count herself as part of its first female class. She applied to the program on the advice of a counselor at another institute that she was attending in Israel.

"Everyone is amazing here," she said of Mayanot. "It's exciting to be part of something new."

Rabbi Meir Levinger, education director of the new program, predicted that the class would grow.

Applications are still pouring in, he said. "There's really no limit to how many students we'll welcome to our program."

The Mayanot curriculum, which is broken down into beginners and advanced levels, includes classes on Torah with its assorted rabbinic commentaries; Jewish history and philosophy; Mishna, Talmud and Jewish law; Tanya, the fundamental Chasidic text written in 1798 by the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, of righteous memory; Chasidic discourses; the Jewish woman; contemporary Jewish issues; and Hebrew language and grammar. Once a week, the girls will tour parts of Israel that they learn about in class.

Instructor Sarah Fuchs, a resident of the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan who teaches Jewish prayer, said that she was amazed at the young women's motivation, considering that some of them are having trouble with Hebrew and are busy learning until 9 p.m. most nights.

"The girls are ready to sit down and work hard," she commented. "They're full of life, energetic and up for a challenge."