Drisha Institute for Jewish Education
Drisha Institute for Jewish Education was founded in 1979 by Rabbi David Silber to provide women with the unprecedented opportunity to engage in the serious study of traditional Jewish texts. At the time, Silber was a lone pioneer, creating the world’s first model of advanced Jewish scholarship for women. Decades later, Drisha continues to hold a unique spot in the world of higher Jewish education for women, providing a learning environment that encourages seriousness of purpose, free inquiry, and respect for the texts of our tradition.
Silber, ordained by Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in 1975, confesses that “I didn’t realize at the time that I was doing something revolutionary.”
Yet Drisha’s impact has been revolutionary, inspiring and fostering other learning programs around the world. Drisha graduates serve as leaders and as role models in a wide variety of Jewish settings, addressing issues at public forums, developing curriculum, and teaching in the classroom.
In fact, thousands of people participate in Drisha programs each year, from the New York area as well as Europe, Israel, and the Americas. Some take continuing education classes during the day or evening hours, while others enroll for short but intensive full-time learning during the summer. High school students from across the country and abroad come to Drisha for a 5-week learning program that is unlike anything they have experienced in school. And both men and women prepare for careers as day school educators through a Drisha program that integrates the study of Jewish text with practical experience in the classroom.
Yet, despite the expansion of Drisha’s original handful of classes into an extensive array of courses at all levels of instruction, some co-ed, Rabbi Silber continues to focus on ways to empower women with the skills to learn classic Jewish text.
“This is not only a feminist issue,” he says. “It is a community issue. The more thoughtful and knowledgeable men and women we have active in the Jewish community, making good ethical decisions and setting good goals, the better community we have.”
In the years since Drisha began to offer women a place of their own to engage in the study of Jewish texts, other schools have emerged that offer women similar opportunities for study. However, all of these institutions clearly define themselves along Orthodox lines. Drisha, on the other hand, is nondenominational and is renowned for its learning environment, where people from all walks of life come together to access Jewish texts directly, respecting differences and appreciating the range of insights.
Reni Dickman, who spent time at Drisha while studying to be a Reform rabbi, says she never felt uncomfortable as a Reform Jew in what many would consider a traditional or even Orthodox setting. “Even though we all came from different backgrounds,” she notes, “we didn’t talk about it. We just studied Torah; nothing else mattered and we were unified in that goal.”
Drisha also is distinguished from other institutions in its commitment to providing women with the skills they need to study even the most difficult classical Jewish texts independently. Although this is evident in most of Drisha’s classes and array of full-time programs, it is most striking in its revolutionary Scholars Circle program. Women who complete this rigorous program, which is akin to a program of rabbinic ordination granted within the Orthodox community, receive a certificate of recognition for dedicating three years to the intensive and advanced study of Talmud and halakha (Jewish law). Some graduates of the Scholars Circle now teach honors Talmud at Jewish high schools, traditionally the domain of male rabbis.
Until Drisha “there was never an opportunity for traditional women to gain knowledge of central rabbinic texts, much less enough knowledge to study independently and to teach,” says Noa Jeselsohn, a member of the Scholars Circle’s second graduating class. The skills Jeselsohn acquired at Drisha prepared her to teach Talmud at Pelech, an innovative religious girls’ high school in Jerusalem.
“The women we get in our programs are exceptional, but they are all special cases,” Rabbi Silber stresses. “The day-school movement is not producing girls with the necessary skills and attitudes who say, ‘I want to learn and teach.’ It is vitally important to have women and men who are knowledgeable and open-minded in positions of educational leadership. It is my hope that the Jewish community will provide opportunities for women, give them a voice and a platform and the respect which will enable them to serve as leaders in the Jewish community.”