Taking a rare break in their studies, students and staff from the women’s division of Jerusalem’s Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies joined local families recently to celebrate the one-year anniversary of their groundbreaking program.

With a unique mission to inspire and educate young women – many of them either recent graduates or in the midst of their university studies – from predominantly non-observant homes, the Chabad-Lubavitch program has managed to create a buzz among former students and their peers.

One alumna, a student a Columbia University, has modeled a study program for classmates wanting to study traditional texts in their original Hebrew and Aramaic on the learning style she experienced at Mayanot. Upon returning home, another has kept up with regular study of the Mishnah – the 2nd-century compendium of Jewish law upon which the Talmud is based – with the help of her local Chabad House.

Such stories are not surprising for Chaya Gansbourg and Rachel Fertel, the students who organized the anniversary dinner earlier this year, which featured Torah lessons from fellow classmates, gourmet food, and a “Family Tree” of photos of past and current students.

“We really are like one big family here,” explained Shifka Seigal, who has taken the year off from her university studies to attend Mayanot. “The women here are all really incredible and the staff is very friendly. It is a very warm atmosphere.”

Pearl Bloch, a Talmud instructor at Mayanot, echoed Seigal’s thoughts.

“I teach at a lot of seminaries,” she said, “and it is really incredible to see the level of excitement among the students here, to see their passion for learning. It is inspiring.”

Sara Lowenstein and Gani Domber study outside.
Sara Lowenstein and Gani Domber study outside.

Embracing Individuality

When Rabbi Shlomo and Rivkah Gestetner embarked on the Mayanot mission years ago, they strove to create a unique environment where intellectual and spiritual passions would not be mutually exclusive.

They were familiar with the winding path taken by students looking for spiritual fulfillment. As directors of the Chabad House at Hebrew University for several years, they heard the questions and concerns voiced by men and women who wanted to dive into traditional Jewish learning without leaving their individuality behind.

Eventually, they opened a men’s yeshiva, which is today headquartered in the Mekor Baruch section of Jerusalem. It has annually drawn scores of students, many of them stopping by in the midst of free Taglit-birthright israel trips. Over the years, it has also trained dozens of Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis, some of whom counted themselves among the thousands of tourists who came to Israel to seek out a stronger connection to their heritage and tried out several institutions in order to find the right fit.

Up until the founding of the women’s program last year, women attended programs at the Mayanot Shul, a community synagogue in neighboring Nachlaot. When the women’s division finally took off – featuring a new staff and curriculum – its enrollment had eight students.

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.

At its inauguration, Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov, the executive director of Mayanot, said that 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.

Today, 40 women learn full time at the program’s campus in the historic, and slightly funky, neighborhood of Katamon. More than 150 women from 22 countries have studied there in its first year.

Describing the program, director Rabbi Meir Levinger cited the parable about teaching someone to fish as opposed to just giving her a fish.

“What we aim to do is give students the skills to be able to continue learning on their own,” he explained, “to be engaged with Jewish texts, and to take ownership of their own growth and their own relationship with tradition.”

The curriculum, which includes courses in Torah, Talmud, Jewish law and Chasidic thought, is designed to meet each student where she is now, whether just learning the Hebrew alphabet for the first time or delving into the complexities of Aramaic grammar.

Students praise the school for the chance to become truly proficient in text study, and for its open minded, warm environment.

“I recently had an experience,” recalled Levinger, “where I had to teach a class but was simply too sick to do so. There was a student in the class who I could tell from listening to her that she really understood the material very thoroughly. So, with me sitting nearby to help, I asked her to teach the class.

“This is what we aim for really,” he continued. “We have a definite pedagogical style that teaches students to understand things well enough to teach them. She was one of the more advanced students in the class, but this is where we hope all of our students will reach.”

Though the program is English-speaking, its approach to learning has attracted women from all over the world, including not only North America, Australia, England and South Africa, but also Uruguay, China, Columbia, Brazil, Holland and 12 other countries.

“Our focus,” said one staff member, “is not to encourage students to leave themselves or their lives behind. Our focus is that they should go back to their lives with the ability to learn and to teach, and from both of these things, to continue to grow.”