Womens yeshiva in Israel: little cash, lots of Berkeley

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At a yeshiva in Jerusalem, approximately 7,400 miles from the Bay Area, students enjoy a touch of Berkeley. And it involves more than the regular yoga and healthy eating classes.

The head of the all-women’s yeshiva, Shirat Devorah, is educator and former Berkeleyite Jody Feld, wife of the late mohel, Rabbi Chanan Feld. The school’s rabbi is Berkeley-born Aaron Liebowitz, son of Rabbi Yosef Liebowitz, former spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley.

They live in Israel now, but the blithe spirit of the East Bay impacts their seminary in the heart of Jerusalem.

 

Aaron Liebowitz

“There are so many ways the program at Shirat Devorah and the unique brand of Jewish life fostered in the Bay Area are truly a good match,” Feld said via e-mail recently. “For example, the hands-on approach, the sense of wholeness, the alternative choices in health and nourishment, seeing care of one’s body as a Torah value.”

 

Liebowitz agreed. And he offered another connection between the yeshiva and the East Bay: He is betting on his California friends to help ease the financial burden of running a Jewish women’s seminary in Israel.

To that end, he traveled to Berkeley last week and tried to do some fundraising in addition to participating in a weekend program at Beth Israel.

Shirat Devorah almost went out of business shortly after it opened last summer, leaving its staff and student body in the lurch.

Chana Mason, the original founder of the school “did an epic job of designing the school,” Liebowitz said in a Nov. 12 phone interview, offering something quite different from the typical women’s seminary.

Most other women’s yeshivas, he said, teach their students based on “a very masculine model, very cerebral, mostly taught by men, that reflected the kind of connection that is an expression of a man’s world. [We] wanted to create a place that was more feminine, not in an old school way, but a place that paid attention to a process of orientation, and teach women ways to connect to God that were not only intellectual.”

The plan was to bring in 25 newly observant Jewish women between the ages of 20 and 30, teach them Torah basics while nourishing each student’s individuality and spirituality.

“The goal was to create an environment where students could learn to live deep Jewish lives and connect to the land of Israel,” Feld said. “Students would also gain an understanding of the Jewish people in the big picture, and across the expanse of history.”

Feld moved to Israel to serve as lead educator, and the yeshiva opened for business last August. But a few weeks after opening, Mason decided for personal reasons she could not run the school.

“This was disastrous for students who came from the States, and others with passion invested in the project,” Liebowitz said, “and also for Jody, who made aliyah with this job in mind.”

Disaster was averted when Liebowitz, Feld and the students collectively decided keep the yeshiva open.

Shirat Devorah presents steep financial challenges, Liebowitz said, but nothing he hasn’t seen before as an experienced Jewish educator and pulpit rabbi.

Liebowitz said it wasn’t until he went off to yeshiva himself at age 17 that “I realized whole Jewish world wasn’t like what I grew up with in Berkeley. I feel privileged to have grown up here.”

Liebowitz is the son and grandson of rabbis, so it’s not a big surprise he, too, went into the rabbinate. Moving to Israel in the early 1980s, Liebowitz went on to found Sulam Yaakov, an ordination program in Jerusalem. He was also a founder of Derech Etz Chaim, a yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood, and the rabbi of a synagogue in the neighborhood of Nachalot.

Now he is taking on more responsibility with helping to steer Shivat Devorah.

“On a financial level, we had a significant number of people step forward and pledge close to 40 percent of what we needed,” he said. “We’re not out of our financial crisis yet. We made cuts in budget. Jody’s end was rebuilding the trust of the students and enlisting their commitment to move forward.”

With all his other professional obligations, as well as having five kids at home, why take on the problems of this little yeshiva?

Said Liebowitz: “This school is gold. The students and teachers are fantastic. It’s something I can’t resist.”

For information about Shirat Devorah, e-mail [email protected].

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.