Midreshet Eshel: A Sephardic School for Women

Tucked away in one of the picturesque alleyways of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, just a two minute walk from the Kotel, the first and only seminary dedicated to young Sephardic women continues to flourish. Now in its second year, Midreshet Eshel is quickly establishing itself as an essential community institution. The school has doubled its student body to two dozen students from New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Montreal, Los Angeles and South Africa, and its future looks promising.

“I’ve seen many programs start up in Israel,” said Rabbi Sammy Kassin of the Shehebar Sephardic Center; “but rarely have they succeeded on this scale, in just a year. It’s a home run.”

The founder and director of Midreshet Eshel is Miram Tawil who, after making aliyah to Israel from Brooklyn five years ago together with her husband and six children, decided to fill the void.

“It struck me that thousands of students come to Jerusalem to study each year and yet Sephardic women were by and large not among them,” Tawil said.

Together with her partner Rabbi Yosef Benarroch, Tawil has laid the foundations for an institution that has already served the community’s women in immeasurable ways.

“I grew in many ways,” said Midreshet Eshel student Luna Franco. “I am going back with a better understanding of myself, G-d and Torah. The classes I took helped me grow in those ways.”

Adds Margie Matthews who just participated in Midreshet Eshel’s one month intersession program, “I didn’t know it was possible for one to learn and grow this much in such a short amount of time, but the teachers and rabbis made it possible.”

With classes in tanach, Sephardic halacha, tefila, Jewish philosophy, psychology, history of Israel, holidays and the Jewish woman, students have a unique opportunity to solidify the religious foundations of their lives. According to Joelle Nitka of Brooklyn, “Midreshet Eshel has taught me to enjoy learning Judaic studies from a different angle and to understand them better.”

Building a seminary for Sephardic women has not always been easy though. Tawil and Benarroch found themselves trying hard to convince prospective students and their families that such a program would benefit them as individuals and as part of the larger community. In fact, skeptics warned of the opposite: that students would distance themselves from their community and religious practices as a result of the experience in Israel.

Rabbi Benarroch, who has taught hundreds of students over the past 25 years, explained, “one of the challenges has been changing the mindset to say that it’s ok for post high school Sephardic women to come to Israel to learn.” While access to such essential education and experience in Israel has predominately been available to students from Ashkenazi communities, now Sephardic students can partake as well. “A program like this is extremely needed in the Sephardic community,” Benarroch added.

“Being away from my family has been hard at times,” said Brenda Saka, “but I feel so independent and accomplished that I can grow personally and spiritually on my own.”

Indeed, one of the unique aspects of Midreshet Eshel is its emphasis on not just spiritual but personal growth. “We see this as a lifelong endeavor which goes hand in hand with religious growth,” explained Tawil.

To that end, Ilana Alouf has implemented a group dynamics course, which she taught for several years in the community before coming to Midreshet Eshel.

“The goal of the course is for students to develop self-awareness, a heightened sense of self-esteem, solidification of personal identity on multiple levels, and the learning and implementation of daily communication skills on a practical level,” Alouf said.

Students have expressed their satisfaction at becoming better communicators, thereby ensuring healthier and more robust personal relationships.

The environment at Midreshet Eshel is designed specifically to make students feel at home, giving each personal attention. The veteran, professional staff makes an enormous effort to ensure that students maximize this short opportunity for personal and spiritual growth. Spending extra hours of their limited free time, the staff is sincerely dedicated to nurturing the students on an individual basis. To help students reach their potential, each student is paired with a teacher whom they can relate to outside of the classroom and approach with any questions and concerns they may have, about themselves, Judaism and life in general.

Students learn five days a week—Sunday through Thursday—and enjoy monthly Shabbatons in different places throughout Israel such as Sefat, the Golan and the Negev. In keeping with the communities solid commitment to hesed, students choose and commit to an individual hesed project to which they dedicate one afternoon a week, such as working with the young, the elderly, the poor, the sick and the disabled. In addition, students work together on one group hesed project.

This year, the students chose to throw a bridal shower for one of the former residents of Gush Katif. Taking care of every detail, the students made the bride and her family feel cared for.

As Esther Laniado put it, “seeing the smile on the kala’s (brides) face was amazing. It made myself and all the girls feel so good about what we did for her. We changed someone’s life.”

Spearheading this important project was Suzy Oved, who said, “being able to help people makes you feel so good; you constantly want to do more to help.”

Midreshet Eshel offers students the opportunity to learn for the full or half year program. It has also successfully added the mid-year intersession program designed for students already in college who come to spend a month learning and growing during their break. This year 10 outstandingly motivated students joined.

“I was so impressed with their thirst for knowledge and their commitment” said Rabbi Kassin who taught a course in Pirkei Avot—Ethics of the Fathers.

Perhaps the most telling observations came from Barbara and Rosie Matalon, who participated in both the half year and intersession programs. “It was really an experience of a lifetime. From the trips down to every last classes, it was the best it could possibly be. We are so grateful that we were able to be a part of it twice.”