TORONTO — The Canadian Friends of Nishmat, a Jerusalem-based organization that promotes higher Torah learning for women, is presenting a one-day conference that aims to educate Orthodox women about taboo issues.
The Nov. 24 Women’s Health and Halacha Day conference, to be held at Shaarei Shomayim Congregration, will promote Nishmat’s Yoatzot Halachah program – the organization’s “jewel in the crown,” said conference co-chair Michele Herrmann.
Through Nishmat, women are trained for two years to become Yoatzot Halachah, women certified by a panel of Orthodox rabbis to be a resource to those who may feel uncomfortable discussing family purity law and women’s health questions with their doctors or rabbis.
“The women work in tandem with rabbinic authorities to help Orthodox Jewish women become more comfortable in understanding family purity and ritual halachah,” Herrmann explained.
Medical professionals from Canada, the United States and Israel, along with three Yoatzot Halachah, will lead sessions at the conference on topics including pregnancy, conception and miscarriage; how to talk to your daughter about puberty; post-partum issues; a Torah perspective on intimacy; perimenopause and menopause; and pre-natal genetic testing.
Dr. Deena Zimmerman, a Yale University and Albert Einstein College of Medicine graduate, who practises as a pediatrician, a Yoetzet Halachah and lactation consultant in Israel, will be a presenter at the conference.
She said she understands why women would prefer to hear from other women who understand their cultural background.
“You go to a doctor who doesn’t understand where you’re coming from, even if they’re an amazing doctor, you might get a feeling that they don’t really understand what’s bothering you. Here, you get a sense that they really get it,” said Zimmerman, author of A Lifetime Companion to the Laws of Jewish Family Life and Mi Dor L’Dor: Genetics and Genetic Diseases: Jewish Legal and Ethical Perspectives.
“The conference is not about feeling more comfortable with one [a rabbi] or another [a doctor]. It’s about understanding the issues on both sides, so they are comfortable talking to both… and being educated about these issues both halachically and medically.”
Zimmerman offered an example of an issue that can be very disruptive to the life of an Orthodox woman, but not to the general public.
“I think a common issue that comes up is a side effect of birth control that can cause irregular bleeding and spotting,” Zimmerman said.
Orthodox women who practise the law of niddah cannot have any physical contact with their husbands until their menstrual cycle – a 12-day process that includes five days of bleeding, followed by seven “clean” days – is complete, and after immersion in a mikvah, a ritual bath.
“It has an impact on Orthodox Jewish women that it may not have on the general public, and that’s why some doctors don’t get it, because they think, you’re fine, you’re not anemic. It’s a spot, put on a pad. But they don’t realize the implications it can have on a particular group,” Zimmerman said.
“But I think also, often women are not comfortable enough with the Halachah to discuss it with their doctor. They know it’s an issue, but they don’t know the nitty-gritty of the issue, so they’re not able to explain to their doctor in a way that will be able to solve the issue.”
Herrmann hopes the conference, which Canadian Friends of Nishmat aims to present biannually, will address issues like the one Zimmerman outlined.
“These topics will help and empower women to understand the routes to take, who to approach, what the best avenues are when you’re looking for help, and to give it a halachic perspective,” Herrmann said.
“We’ll explore everything from intimacy in a marriage, what is halachically acceptable, what it is not – which is something Orthodox women are relatively clueless about and embarrassed to talk about…” to body issues and eating disorders, and caring for cognitively impaired parents or spouses.
“We can even bring out the halachic perspective relating to cancer. If you’re suffering from cancer and you’re going through chemo and it’s physically debilitating, there is an issue of holding your husband’s hand during your menstrual cycle.”
Whatever the topic, Herrmann is confident the conference will be “a comfortable place for women to ask questions they usually feel uncomfortable asking.”
For more information or to register, call Canadian Friends of Nishmat at 416-628-4634 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.