No Glass Ceiling When it Comes to Torah: An Interview with Yael Goldfischer

By: Michael Weiner  |  November 14, 2018

By Michael Weiner

Mrs. Yael Goldfischer is the Chair of Frisch’s Chumash (Bible) Department, as well as the Director of the Israel Guidance Department for women. Mrs. Goldfischer has a dual Master’s degree from Bernard Revel Graduate School of Yeshiva University in Medieval Jewish History and Bible. She lectures regularly in various communities and at Midreshet Yom Rishon.

Michael Weiner: Tell us a little bit about your educational and religious background. In particular, what were some of your formative early experiences learning Torah?  

Yael Goldfischer: I grew up in a home where my parents greatly valued Torah and strongly supported the learning of all of their children. Early on, my older brother did a lot of independent learning and served as a role model for me. Throughout childhood, I had chavrutot with older students, like NCSY advisors, over Shabbat, and was inspired by their knowledge and passion. As a teenager, I really got exposed to serious Torah study through attending summer programs like NCSY’s Michlelet and the Drisha Institute.   

MW: What was it like to be a young woman interested in and passionate about Torah learning? Did you face skepticism or challenges in taking that path?

YG: In high school, I straddled two worlds. At my all-girls school, I was probably perceived as more liberal than most for my interest in Torah learning, including Gemara. I definitely stood out as someone who liked to learn, even in [her] free time.

That said, I never felt any negativity or self-consciousness in identifying myself as a “learner,” and never received any negative comments about it. Also, my family was always supportive of my learning, which was tremendously helpful.

MW: Who were some educational role models growing up who inspired you to make chinuch (teaching) your career?

YG: In high school, I had an Israeli Tanach teacher who conducted the class in Hebrew and pushed us to study the text thoughtfully and closely. She gave me the foundational skills I needed to learn, and though the class was very challenging, I came to appreciate how learning Tanach with intellectual sophistication can make it even more religiously inspiring.

Additionally, I saw how she not only loved Tanach, but felt it come alive with each reading. A powerful demonstration of this for me was when she openly cried in class when we read about Moshe’s death at the end of Devarim. It was all so real for her in a way I’d never seen before.

Another influential teacher was Rabbi Menachem Leibtag, who deepened my knowledge and appreciation for how literary tools can help make sense of biblical texts.

MW: What led you to become a Jewish educator? What were the “whys” that drove you to make that decision?  

YG: Growing up, I always loved learning Torah. I got valuable experience teaching from NCSY shabbaton sessions and as a madricha (advisor) on the Michlelet program.

Primarily, I got into teaching because I wanted to show students that Torah is a sophisticated source of wisdom whose meaning is only fully revealed after careful study. Students come into high school thinking that they already know the Torah because they learned it as kids, but there is so much more to learn. It has many layers of meaning, eternally relevant messages, and is intimately connected to all people at all stages of life.

On a secondary level, I also wanted to show students that women can be learned and have what to teach in terms of Torah knowledge. It’s hard to teach Tanach well, and when I succeed at doing that, students of both genders see and appreciate that.  

MW: In your personal experience or from what you hear from colleagues, are there unique barriers to entry that make it especially difficult for women to become Torah educators?

YG: I actually think it’s the opposite. There are far more men who teach Gemara than there are women who teach Tanach at a high level. That scarcity creates demand, and so there are plenty of career opportunities for women teachers with the right background and skills.   

Additionally, in my experience, schools are generally very understanding about the responsibilities of motherhood, and so I don’t feel at a disadvantage to my male colleagues in that respect.

MW: What were some early moments of success in your career that made you feel you were on the right track?

YG: Leading students to those “aha” moments, where they feel that parts of the Torah finally make sense to them or seem relevant to them, were the most rewarding moments early on. Forging personal relationships with students beyond the classroom and maintaining those post-graduation has also been deeply meaningful. I love when students of mine who are now in Israel for the year write to me and express what my class meant to them and how helpful it’s been for their learning in yeshiva.

MW: Do you try to send certain messages to your female students, supporting and empowering them to learn and demonstrating that their Torah study matters, too?

YG: In co-ed classes, you can’t really make comments aimed only at the men or women in the room. But if the classroom is mixed, there’s an implicit message there that female students don’t feel like second-class citizens and are treated as equals. In my class, girls don’t feel like there’s a glass ceiling with regard to learning Torah.

MW: Do you do any sort of work mentoring and advising female students who are considering going into Torah education?  

YG: I do, but mostly with former students who are now in Israel or college. Just recently, a former student interested in chinuch came back to observe my class.

That said, I don’t see very many former students entering Jewish education. In my 15 years of teaching, I can only think of about 10 who have taken that path.

MW: Has the Modern Orthodox community changed since you began teaching with regard to supporting and encouraging women’s Torah learning?

YG: Yes. A lot of progress has been made in the community, such that it now embraces higher women’s learning, and supports and showcases female scholars. For example, there are probably far more women serving as scholars in residence at synagogues over Shabbat today than 15 years ago. However, opportunities and teachers are still too rare. One reason is that lots of passionate female educators make Aliyah. Another might be that our community places too much of a value on prestigious or high-paying jobs. Or it could be that we need stronger, more developed institutions. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact cause, and it is probably due to a combination of things.