Torah institute for women grows in Berkeley

Phyllis Miller always imagined she’d have to live in Israel to participate in comprehensive Torah study for women.

Then the Merkavah Torah Institute came to town.

“This is a phenomenal opportunity in my backyard,” Miller said. “How could I not do it?”

Since September, the Lafayette resident has spent every Wednesday morning studying the Prophets with a dozen other women at the Merkavah Torah Institute. The new pluralistic nonprofit seeks to make Torah learning accessible, rigorous and engaging for women of all ages and backgrounds.

Nell Mahgel-Friedman, a San Francisco native, started the institute this fall after nearly a year of brainstorming with friends.

“Everybody had a core desire to have a place for serious learning that had a personal connection to our lives and that created a sense of community,” she said.

Classes began in September. Twice a week, women meet at Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley to learn Talmud; a separate class meets once a week to discuss the Prophets, the second part of the Tanach, or Hebrew Bible.

“It’s hard work — they’re breaking their teeth over [the text],” said instructor Dalia Davis. “Their thirst for knowledge is commendable. They could do anything else with their time, but they’re here.”

Davis has degrees from Barnard College and Yeshiva University, and studied in Israel for several years. Merkavah is unique on the West Coast, Davis believes. “This is the only place I know of like this outside of New York and Israel,” she said.

Mahgel-Friedman grew up in San Francisco, the daughter of flower children. As a young girl she was “always very interested in Judaism,” even though her family was not. She was the only one of her siblings to have a bat mitzvah.

As a student at Humboldt State University, her interest in Judaism continued to grow, and she organized a short trip to Israel. She ended up staying for two years.

While in Israel, she studied at women’s Torah centers in Tsfat and Jerusalem. She returned to California with the desire to create something similar in the Bay Area.

“By having a class for women only, it’s really creating a space for women to find their own voice,” she said.

Several years later, her dream has become a reality.

Merkavah classes are small and intimate. Students meet in the Beth Israel library, a cozy room lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Yet the library is far from quiet when class is in session; the room is alive with animated conversations when students study in chevrutah (learning partners) during the first hour of class.

Though the institute meets at Beth Israel, it is independent and welcomes students of all streams of Judaism, stressed Mahgel-Friedman.

“In our Talmud program, we have six students and five community affiliations represented,” she said. “We’re very proud of that.”

While Merkavah’s primary goal is to educate students about classical Jewish text, it’s also creating new opportunities for Orthodox Jewish women like Davis.

“Being female in the Orthodox world, I don’t have as many opportunities as men,” she noted. “But really in the last five years, change is starting to happen. And Merkavah is at the forefront of that change.”

Mahgel-Friedman and Davis hope to soon offer evening classes and organize lectures and workshops at synagogues throughout the Bay Area.

“Merkavah” means chariot or wagon, a common symbol in Jewish mystical teachings.

Mahgel-Friedman chose the name because “a chariot can transport you from one place to another, and can take you [places] you could not reach on your own.”

Just like she hopes her Torah institute will.

Merkavah Torah Institute spring classes begin Jan. 13. For information on classes, cost and registration, contact Nell Mahgel-Friedman at (510) 292-0175 or e-mail her at [email protected].

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.