Women leave home for Israeli seminary

You can see them everywhere.

Sporting ankle-length skirts, name-brand sneakers, headbands and bright smiles, they hit the town during their free time.

Sipping cappuccino in the cafes on Emek Refaim, standing in clusters by the frozen yogurt store in the center of town and walking through the Malcha mall — these North American seminary women are not easy to miss.

Serious female students have been coming to Israel to study after high school for the past 20 years. In the last decade, this trend has become much more popular.

"It's the thing to do," said Shayndi Raice, 18, from Monsey, N.Y., who chose to study at Midreshet Lindenbaum, which caters to 120 overseas students.

Raice notes that 23 of the 28 students in her high school yeshiva class came to Israel this year to study.

But it wasn't peer pressure that prompted her to leave her suburban home for a foreign city.

"I'm not learning here to get good grades or to get into college. I'm learning because I want to learn. It's something that I love. It's been a year of growth emotionally and intellectually. I'm figuring out who I am. I am realizing what my potential is, and what I am like without any other pressures," Raice says.

A student from Chicago adds: "I think this is a 'finding yourself' kind of year. This is our coming-of-age journey. We're far away from our parents and families, and we have no responsibilities except that of investigating our religion and trying to figure out where we stand before we set off to college. I guess the ideal is that we'll all emerge from this year with a new sense of self."

Come August and early September these students flood the airports. Lugging their duffel bags into their new dorm rooms, pulling out boxes of their favorite American cereals, and stacks of deodorants and shampoos, they are getting ready for their first year far away from their families and homes.

Ready or not, almost immediately upon their arrival, they are pulled into a schedule of Jewish study that lasts from morning until evening every day.

Midreshet Lindenbaum — located on the corner of Leb Yaffe Street in Talpiot — is one of Jerusalem's most prestigious modern Orthodox seminaries for women. Students often refer to it as Brovender's, after founder Rabbi Chaim Brovender.

Though many other women's seminaries have sprung up and become successful, Midreshet Lindenbaum has remained unique in its style of study. It is famous for its method of teaching the students how to learn on their own by cutting down on the time spent in the classroom with the teacher. It also has the largest beit midrash (study hall) for women in the world, according to senior faculty member Rabbi Tuvia Kaplan. Close to 200 women learn there at one time.

Midreshet Lindenbaum prides itself not only on imparting knowledge to its students, but also on teaching them to develop skills that enable them to learn on their own.

It is exactly that reputation for serious independent study that prompted Raice to enroll.

"I wanted a place that was very serious about learning and intellectually honest. I wanted a place that was focused on teaching you how to learn — and the actual texts instead of trying to brainwash you or turn you into what they think a good religious young woman should be," Raice said.

Frayda Gonshor, a student from Montreal, said: "The program focuses on building our skills…Yes, we come out of each day with more knowledge, but more importantly we've completed some real brainwork.

"You go down into the text, you struggle with it yourself and the next time you approach a commentator or a piece of Talmud, you'll be more equipped to deal with it because you've handled it before. It's more of a 'do it yourself' program instead of having our teachers spoon-feed everything to us."

The school's Talmud-based curriculum has made it both famous and, in some circles, infamous. For years the complicated rabbinical texts have been considered the domain of men only. Many Orthodox men and women feel that women should not be studying the Talmud.

Flying in the face of this tradition, other female seminaries now include the study of Talmud as an option in their set of courses. Still, Midreshet Lindenbaum is the only women's seminary that provides daily intensive Talmud study.

"While we're not trying to precisely mimic men's institutions, the fact that the women learn Talmud on their own is still very new," says Rabbi Shalom Berger, who has been teaching Talmud in Midreshet Lindenbaum for 10 years.

"I think it is more enjoyable to deal with women than men in this field. When men study the Talmud, the learning is constantly filled with the competitive spirit of one-upmanship," Berger said.

"The women, on the other hand, have a much more supportive attitude toward learning. They work together in order to understand the texts."