When Rabbi David Silber founded the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education in 1979, people thought an organization dedicated to women’s Talmud study was crazy. Now, the idea almost seems passé.
As higher Jewish education for women has become more widespread in the Jewish community, in large part as a result of Drisha’s own efforts, Drisha has been knocked from its perch as the foremost institution for women’s higher Jewish learning. Now, rising rents are driving the institute from its home of nearly 14 years near Lincoln Center. Its final programs will be its Winter Week of Learning, which will take place during the week of Dec. 25, and on Dec. 25 at 6 p.m. it will host a farewell event, “an evening of reflection and celebration.”
After closing its doors on 65th Street, Drisha will continue to host classes and lectures in Manhattan and is currently in talks with several synagogues to arrange for event space. Its intensive summer kollels for college students and young professionals as well as its high school summer program will be housed at the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at New York University.
The move has prompted Drisha to take a hard look at its work and refocus where it believes it can have the most impact. The institution has run a number of programs in Israel over the past several years, including a two-week beit midrash for Israeli students. It is now planning to open a full-time yeshiva for women in Israel, beginning next fall. It will be called Yeshivat Drisha, and it’s being billed as “an advanced learning institute for women. Drisha officials are still looking at possible locations.
“Just to exist as an institution without putting new things out there, that’s not for us,” said Rabbi David Silber, founder and dean of Drisha.
“We believe that learning requires a certain activism and a certain sense of what’s my role in this world,” – Rabbi Silber
The yeshiva, which will be led by Rabbanit Hannah Dreyfuss, will accept students who have already completed one year of intensive Torah study in order to begin with “a cadre of extremely serious and committed women,” according to Rabbi Silber. The school will be modeled on the classical yeshiva, with an emphasis on individual study instead of classes; it will open with a three-year program. Rabbi Silber sees the yeshiva as a place for “pure Torah study” and, at the same time, an opportunity to impact the Jewish world.
“We believe that learning requires a certain activism and a certain sense of what’s my role in this world,” said Silber.
In some ways, the founding of a yeshiva is a return to Drisha’s roots. Rabbi Silber founded the center in 1979 as a non-denominational beit midrash, house of study, for women. In 1984, he started the Drisha fellowship program, which became the Drisha Scholars Circle, a full-time yeshiva study program for women in which students received a stipend, much like yeshiva kollel programs for men.
The Scholars Circle was discontinued four years ago amid dwindling demand for the program and greater competition for students interested in serious Talmud study. Options for women’s learning have increased in recent years, with Rabbi Avi Weiss founding of Yeshivat Maharat, a rabbinical school for women, in 2009, as well as Yeshiva University’s Graduate Program for Advanced Talmud Study for Women. Though not primarily focused on Talmud study, Nishmat’s Yoatzot Halacha program, which trains women to answer questions about the laws of family purity, has expanded to the United States in recent years, providing yet another option.
“We’re constantly thinking, what can we do that’s not already there? We’re not complacent.” – Rabbi Silber
“That’s the price of success,” said Rabbi Silber, noting that many of these institutions have grown directly or indirectly from Drisha’s work.
Even with all the progress that’s been made, the rabbi still sees more work to be done.
“We’re constantly thinking, what can we do that’s not already there?” said Rabbi Silber. “We’re not complacent.”