Eitz Chayim Hi: Women and The Hachnassat Sefer Torah

By: Jennifer van Amerongen  |  April 3, 2017

One day last year, I received a stream of videos over Whatsapp. The mashgicha ruchanit of my school in Israel, the Beit Midrash for Women at Migdal Oz, had sent me video recordings of the Hachnassat Sefer Torah at Migdal Oz. I teared up as I watched the videos of current students as well as my former teachers and madrichot dancing a new sefer Torah up the hill to its new home in the Beit Midrash. It was the day before Shavuot, the day on which we celebrate the giving of the Torah, and I watched my Rosh Beit Midrash, Esti Rosenberg, dancing in ecstasy. With the the sun setting over the hills of Gush Etzion, she celebrated the Torah alongside the women of the Beit Midrash, rejoicing for one of the first times since the end of her period of avelut for her father, HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l. Although I was not able to be there in person, watching the videos made me feel connected to my time spent learning Torah in the Beit Midrash, to my teachers, and most importantly, made me feel a sense of pride and love of Torah.

Last week, I received videos of a different Hachnassat Sefer Torah. This time, it was from a male friend on Wilf Campus, who was watching the dancing on Amsterdam Avenue in honor of the Chag HaSemikha. However, watching those clips did not evoke the same reactions as those I experienced upon receiving the videos from the celebration at Migdal Oz. When I watched the videos from Migdal Oz, I felt a sense of belonging, a homesickness to learn in my midrasha again mixed with pure happiness. In contrast, when watching the simchat hatorah of the hundreds of attendees at the Chag HaSemikha, I could not help but feel like an outsider. Watching these videos, I did not feel as if I was being transported to the event, dancing along with fellow Torah pupils and YU students. I was all too aware that even if I had found myself in Washington Heights that day, the opportunity would not have been open to me.

I was reminded of something I have felt on many an occasion throughout my time at YU. I was reminded that as much as I am a student at Yeshiva University, my relationship to the Yeshiva is not reciprocal. As much as I long to be part of this community of students, of people who love Torah with their whole being, I am not. The Hachnassat Sefer Torah  was another instance that reminded me of this fact.

On a technical level, there was no promotion for the event on the Beren Campus. When I walked around the Wilf Campus in the weeks leading up to the event, I saw  large banners promoting the Chag HaSemikha. The walls were plastered with portraits of RIETS musmakhim from years past. When I asked my friends at Wilf what they knew about the event, one forwarded me an email from the Mazer Yeshiva Program email system, letting the men know about changes in scheduling that day and invited them to dance at the Hachnassat Sefer Torah. Although there was no formal invitation issued to  the undergraduate men, my friends said that there were multiple announcements made in the Glueck Beit Midrash about the Chag HaSemikha and the Hachnassat Sefer Torah and that people knew about it.

Thinking about this event made me feel left out of my own community. The Hachnassat Sefer Torah was a celebration of our community’s values and although I am a student of Yeshiva University and am committed to Torah on the same level as my male counterparts, YU forgot about me. The lack of mechitza or women’s section at the event implied that not only were we not invited, but we were not expected to be in attendance. It felt as if no one had even considered the possibility that we would want to partake in the festivities. This is not just about the Hachnassat Sefer Torah. It is just one example of how the women of YU are constantly left out of the Yeshiva. President Joel often remarks that the uptown campus is built around a classical Lithuanian yeshiva. He outright acknowledges that women are not included in that model. We don’t have regular access to roshei yeshiva, we don’t have the learning opportunities that the men have, and we don’t have anything close to the Glueck Beit Midrash structure on the Wilf campus.

I, and many other women, chose to attend YU out of a desire to live and learn in a place that takes Torah seriously. My hope was to continue learning Torah on a serious level and with proper support after my year in Israel. I saw YU as a place that could foster my spiritual development and as a bastion of Torah U’Madda and women’s Talmud Torah. Unfortunately, as a female student, I have not felt that I have gotten what I wanted out of YU. I have taken great classes, forged amazing friendships and built good memories, but I have not experienced the Torah atmosphere I expected. I do not feel the support or encouragement of YU in my Torah learning.

I am calling upon the administration to undertake a cheshbon hanefesh and consider how women can be full members of the yeshiva. Ways this could be accomplished include making roshei yeshiva regularly available to women on the Beren Campus (not just occasional shiurim), reconsidering the women’s undergraduate Jewish studies curriculum, trying to help solve the problem of the Beren Beit Midrash being used as a library or celebrating the accomplishments of GPATS talmidot to the same degree that those of RIETS students are celebrated. I don’t know the best solution, but if YU wants to stand by their motto of “Nowhere But Here,” they must consider how to integrate half of the school into the yeshiva’s mission. This is an issue of the women’s spiritual development, but more importantly, it is an opportunity to be magdil Torah u’maadirah.