Where can women find Jewish role models Try the Bible

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They brought their expertise to the East Bay last month, leading sessions at the intensive two-week Berkeley Beit Midrash at Congregation Beth Israel, which has been examining Jewish spiritual models in classical Jewish texts.

"I used to think there was a negative attitude about women, that they weren't all equal to men, that they were all restricted. But that's not what the texts say, or at least that's what I'm finding out," said San Francisco resident and Beth Israel congregant Elza Behrens, who is attending for the second year.

"Discussions have been very animated. I can tell you that," added Behrens, who helped coordinate the program.

Both Margalit and Fonrobert cut their teeth on Jewish texts in Berkeley. Margalit, who grew up in Hawaii, did his doctoral course work at U.C. Berkeley and is now completing his dissertation on gender studies in the Mishnah. He spent the last year teaching at Jerusalem's Pardes Institute.

Fonrobert, a native of Germany, completed her doctorate in talmudic studies last summer at the Graduate Theological Union's Center for Jewish Studies, and has been teaching at Syracuse University in upstate New York.

Both are helping Jewish feminism take root through studies of classical Jewish texts. Orthodoxy and feminism are not necessarily incompatible, they point out.

"There is a kind of underground feminist strain among Chassidim themselves" about women taking up scriptural study, said Margalit, who is deeply grounded in Chassidic sources. "But that's not always seen on the surface."

Although he has not found much official openness to women scholars among the Chassidim, he said a large number of non-Chassidic scholars — including women — are still studying such writings and teaching the texts.

Women have not historically been involved in scriptural scholarship as well as because of tradition as talmudic law, Fonrobert said. The daily tasks of housekeeping and child care left little time for such scholarly pursuits.

In recent years, however, the number of female scholars of the Talmud and Torah has been growing, they said.

Fonrobert, who now thinks of Berkeley as home, taught at the Berkeley Beit Midrash for the first time, while Margalit has been involved in the program since its inception.

Now in its fourth year, the program is a daily course of Torah study that runs three hours a night, five nights a week for two weeks. Beth Israel's Rabbi Eliezer Finkelman, who runs the program, compared its intensity to that of a yeshiva.

This past year the program has grown to the point where there were about 25 students and five teachers — Margalit, Fonrobert, Finkelman, Chanan Feld of Berkeley and David Henkin of San Francisco.

Those interested in future Beit Midrash programs can call Behrens at (415) 864-5836.