Given her upbringing, it’s not surprising that Estee Rosenberg, 34, and the mother of five, heads a center for women’s Torah study in Israel. Rosenberg’s parents are Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, rosh yeshiva, or dean, of Yeshivat Har Etzion, considered the Harvard of Israeli yeshivas, and Tova Lichtenstein, daughter of the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the spiritual father of Modern Orthodoxy, and a teacher in her own right.
During a recent visit to New York, Rosenberg and her father spoke about the remarkable growth of women’s Torah learning in the last two decades, since the time that the Lichtensteins shocked many of their neighbors by having Estee give a learned d’var Torah, or sermon, at her bat mitzvah celebration.
At the time it was such a singular event, she recalled, the printer for the invitation hardly knew what to do with the text. Rosenberg didn’t even invite her friends from school because they wouldn’t have known what to make of it. “It was considered strange,” she said.
But studying Torah was not at all strange for Rosenberg, who remembers learning Mishna with her father when she was just 6 or 7.
Rabbi Lichtenstein said “the intensity and scope” of what he studied with his daughters — he and his wife have four sons and two daughters — was less than what he studied with his sons as they got older. But Rosenberg added that “the message we got was the same message — that learning and living a serious religious life was the most important thing. It was the center of our house and life.”
So when it was time to establish the Bais Midrash for women three years ago, Rabbi Lichtenstein knew where to find the perfect candidate to lead it. Rosenberg had been running the program for Israelis at Yeshivat Hamivtar-Orot Lev, popularly known as Brovenders.
Rabbi Lichtenstein’s yeshiva, known as “Gush,” already had in place a part-time program for women involving about 200 women — most of them married with children — who study four mornings a week. But there were a growing number of requests, he said, for something more intensive.
“The issue was germinating in the community,” Rabbi Lichtenstein said. “We began the Bais Midrash in recognition that this issue could be very significant in the women’s roles in the home, and in teaching within the community.”
And so they began the Bais Midrash, formally known as The Stella K. Abraham Beit Midrash for Women of Yeshivat Har Etzion. Two miles down the road from the boys’ yeshiva, it involves full-time study of Talmud, Jewish law, Bible and Jewish philosophy. Eighty students ranging in age from 18 to 24 study from 8:30 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. Some are married, but few have children.
They learn for a year, then perform their national service. About half return for two to three more years of study as they prepare to be teachers in Orthodox girls’ schools.
Rosenberg’s grandfather, Rabbi Soloveitchik, who died in 1993, favored the idea of serious Torah study for women provided that it was impelled by proper Orthodox motivation — so the women could better teach their children how to know and love Torah — rather than by what he regarded as a negative external motivation, namely feminism.
“Most of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers knew very little [Torah] and yet they were very committed,” said Rabbi Lichtenstein, who holds a doctorate in English from Harvard. “For most women today in a modern context, if they are going to have the passion that their grandmothers almost innately had, we have to give them this kind of education.”
Advanced Talmud study for women is valuable for its own sake, he said, and women “internalizing more of a Torah world relates to not just what they teach their children but the priorities which will dominate their home.”
And yet the question of career options for these women, who are among the most seriously Jewishly educated women in history, looms before them, acknowledged Rabbi Lichtenstein.While negotiations are under way with Israel’s Ministry of Education to allow the Bais Midrash to become a five-year degree-granting teacher’s college, with students earning a bachelor’s degree in education, that won’t solve all of the students’ potential needs for careers in which they can use what they have learned.
In this country, four young women who have studied Torah full-time for several years have become congregational interns, working at Lincoln Square Synagogue on the Upper West Side and the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.
At the February conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, these women said in a panel discussion that they feel they have no professional place to go with their skills even after they have worked teaching adults and providing pastoral care and some halachic advice to women.
Rosenberg says, however, the question of what the learned women coming out of her Bais Midrash will do with their skills outside the home is not so pressing.
“People like to talk about the revolution in women’s learning, people say that everyone is involved, but there are only 500 or 600 girls learning in yearly programs even though 5,000 girls graduate religious high schools and national service programs each year,” she said. “There’s a lot of room to grow.”
The number of learning programs for adult Orthodox women in Israel is expanding, she said, and “they all want women as spiritual leaders and teachers in the women’s community.” The woman in the position of knowing more than most “will find herself a place.”
Of greater concern in her view is “women bringing down the level” of what is considered a truly learned Torah scholar.
“Women today go for one or two years, but men have to study much longer,” she said. “If a girl learns for three years it’s like she’s thought of as a gadol hador,” a great leader of her generation, said Rosenberg.
“It’s a big danger because we want to show women they have a success,” Rosenberg said, yet “I don’t want to give my students shortcuts” to becoming true scholars.
“The weakness of what we’re doing is that we don’t know what the end of the road will be. We know the beginning of the way and we should walk on it without seeking shortcuts.”