Some Haredi rabbis are insisting that women refrain from seeking guidance about Jewish laws related to menstruation and sex from other women, including yoatzot, counselors who are trained to answer such questions.
In a proclamation obtained and verified by Shtetl, the Chabad Beth Din of Crown Heights urges community members not to work with yoatzot, and instead take their questions about taharat hamishpacha, Jewish laws of family purity, only to male rabbis. The document was seen on a sealed official bulletin board at the Chabad-Lubavitch world headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where it was up for at least one month.
In the document, translated from Hebrew by Shtetl, Rabbis Avraham Azdaba and Yosef Yeshaya Braun say they’ve received “a number of inquiries” about yoatzot. “One may not rely on the words of irresponsible women of weak mind, the so-called Yoatzot (and by whatever other name they may be known), on any halakhic matter, and they should not be consulted at all,” the letter says.
Under a strict reading of Jewish law, a woman is forbidden to have sex while she is a niddah. A woman is a niddah when she is menstruating, for seven days after the end of her period, and then until she has immersed herself in a mikveh. Other situations may also cause a woman to become a niddah, such as hymen bleeding. When a Haredi woman is unsure of her niddah status, she – or her husband – can give her stained underwear, or a separate cloth called a bedikah cloth, to a male rabbi for him to evaluate according to complicated Jewish laws.
Based on factors such as color and size of the stain, the rabbi can determine when the couple can have sex again. Some Haredi communities have dropboxes where couples can place the underwear or cloth; these boxes provide some privacy while accommodating rabbis’ busy schedules.
Some interviewed by Shtetl said they viewed these traditions as a normal part of everyday life and don’t think asking male rabbis sensitive questions is always uncomfortable. But others endorsed innovations that have, in recent years, allowed women to follow Jewish law in a way they find more comfortable.
In a blog post, Miriam Levy-Haim, an adviser at Yeshiva University who grew up Chabad in Crown Heights, wrote that the anti-yoatzot letter denigrated women’s scholarship and caused “deep pain” to women in the community.
“Every aspect of the mitzvah of taharas hamishpacha, indeed many elements of the daily functioning of a kosher Jewish home, depends on the knowledge, intelligence, discretion, good judgment, and integrity of Jewish women,” she wrote. “Does Rabbi Braun mean to suggest that women are not reliable? That women are incapable, incompetent, and less than worthy of respect?”
Chabad, known for being more open than other Hasidic sects, appears to be unique in the Hasidic community for publicly grappling with the subject of yoatzot at all.
Nishmat, an Israeli-based organization dedicated to women’s higher religious learning, started a yoetzet training program in 1997. The two-year certification program includes an in-depth study of niddah with supplementary studies of women’s medicine and halacha. At first, it only answered people’s questions over the phone or online. Now, some Modern Orthodox synagogues have a yoetzet on staff.
Nishmat opened a U.S. branch in 2011. Atara Eis, a yoetzet who leads the U.S. branch, told Shtetl there are 21 yoatzot employed in communities in the U.S., with more who are not officially employed. Eis said this number has increased consistently since 2011.
Eis said yoatzot are careful not to pasken, or make a halachic ruling; this would infringe on rabbis’ domain. Instead, yoatzot study halachic rulings that have been made in the past, and advise accordingly. “We do not pasken,” Eis said. “Women who study in our program are learned. But they are not given permission to pasken. Our yoatzot turn to rabbis if there’s ever anything that requires psak.”
“I’ve seen situations where if you don’t know what the latest contraceptive option is, and a woman is given permission to use contraception but then she’s not given the right halachic guidance because there’s not an understanding of what is going on medically to her body, we have a problem,” Eis said. “We’re here to stop women’s suffering. That’s why we exist. It’s not to make waves. It’s not to change the role of women. None of that.”
Devorah Backman, who lived in the Chabad Crown Heights community for years, said she views yoatzot as a positive development and was disappointed when she saw the rabbis’ letter. “I’ve been married for ten years, and I found the idea of involving a rabbi in very personal parts of my intimate life to be extremely bothersome. I remember telling my kallah teacher, when I first learned about it, ‘I’m not going to do this,’” said Backman, who has also written for Shtetl.
Even some men are critical of the rabbi-centric system. A member of the Jerusalem Chabad community, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his family ties, said that when he was married, he had such an unpleasant experience with a rabbi that he decided never to observe taharat hamishpacha again.
“I went to the local Chabad rabbi,” the man said. “He was on the phone talking to somebody else, and he took the cloth from me in a rough manner. While remaining on the phone, he nonchalantly gave it back to me and said it’s OK. It just felt extremely creepy and weird.”
“So after that, I never went back,” he said. “I would just lie to my then-wife. Sometimes I would say, ‘he said it’s OK.’ Sometimes I would say, ‘I have to go back.’ I just lied.”
Even under Haredi Jews’ strict reading of Jewish law, women have some role in helping other women follow Jewish laws related to marriage. For example, before women get married, they attend classes with a female kallah teacher who gives them advice about married life, such as how to handle conflicts, what to expect the first time they have sex, and how to comply with taharat hamishpacha.
There are other ways women can be involved, too. Women may also consult a bodeket, a woman who examines a woman’s vagina when the woman wants to clarify whether her blood is menstrual blood or blood from an open wound, in which case it does not disqualify her from having sex under Jewish law.
MikvehCalendar.com, a website and period tracking app that helps couples observe taharat hamishpacha, has the support of Haredi rabbis. “They’re not necessarily going to write a letter endorsing it, but they will tell people to use it,” said Rivkah Bloom, a Chabad-leaning programmer who founded the app in 2009.
The Mikveh app has settings for traditions that are Chabad, Satmar, Bukharian, and more; it’s available in English, Hebrew, and other languages. Bloom said it has about 100,000 users. The website contains referrals to yoatzot.org under its lists of family resources and frequently asked questions.
Chabad’s recent letter on yoatzot wasn’t its first niddah-related controversy. In 2017, COLlive, a website covering the Crown Heights Chabad community, reported that four Chabad rabbis came out against an app where women could send pictures of their underwear or cloth for male rabbis to inspect, so that the rabbis did not actually touch the cloth.
“Any Rav who had even just begun to get the required training in checking bedikah cloths etc. knows how the cloth needs to be turned and tilted, sometimes stretched etc., to enable an accurate view,” a Chabad rabbi wrote in a public letter rejecting the app, according to the COLlive report.
Some people interviewed said the traditional way of asking niddah questions can be uncomfortable, but isn’t as uncomfortable as some outside the community might imagine.
“It was just part of life,” said David, a former member of the Satmar Hasidic community in Kiryas Joel. He requested that his last name not be included.
A woman who grew up in a yeshivish community said she switched a few years ago from only asking rabbis niddah-related questions to mostly asking yoatzot. But she still asks rabbis questions, too. “I’m not so uncomfortable asking male rabbis questions, but there was a time that I was, and it depends on the question,” the woman, who now identifies as Modern Orthodox, said. She asked to remain anonymous to protect her relationships in the Haredi world.
“Some things I don’t care that much, like if it’s a technical niddah question, but if it’s something about sex, I don’t ask a rabbi that question,” she said. “When it comes to that, I want to speak to a woman.”
Are you a Haredi yoetzet, or a Haredi woman who works with a yoetzet? If you’d like to talk with Shtetl about your experience, contact reporter Lauren Hakimi at email@example.com
includes Forest Hills, Kew Gardens and a small part of Rego Park. This area is home to a large Bukharian community and a Litvish community.
- Lynn Schulman (D, incumbent), who is Jewish, has a J.D. from Brooklyn Law School. A member of the council’s LGBTQIA caucus, Schulman signed a letter urging Yeshiva University to recognize an LGBTQ club on campus. Schulman has used discretionary funds to contribute to local causes such as education, youth programs, workforce development, parks and clean-up services; she’s also contributed to a Jewish soup kitchen, local congregations and local Chabad chapters.
- Ethan Felder (D), who is Jewish, is a union-side labor lawyer. He told Patch he supports raising the city’s minimum wage and hopes to improve public safety by addressing mental health. In 2017, Felder won a case where he worked pro bono to reverse the move of a polling place away from a predominantly African American residential area in Queens. In April 2020, he signed a letter to then-mayor Bill de Blasio that criticized what it described as the mayor’s singling out and heavy-handed policing of the Jewish community and Haredi gatherings during the pandemic. Later, in May 2021, after a major outbreak of violence in Israel and Palestine, Felder organized a rally in Forest Hills in support of Israel.
- Danniel Maio (R) is a mapmaker. He has criticized bail reform, congestion pricing and COVID-19 restrictions.
- Sukhjinder Singh Nijjar (D) works at the Queens District Attorney’s office. He has also worked in finance. He told Shtetl his top priorities include funding educational programs to tackle hate crimes and violence and ensuring language access for all languages spoken in his district. He supports QueensLink, a project that looks to provide a new north-south transit link in Queens while also supporting new parks.
includes the part of Williamsburg west of Wythe Avenue and southeast of Ross Street. This area is one of the centers of the Haredi community; it has a large Satmar population.
- Lincoln Restler (D, incumbent), who is Jewish, has the support of progressive Jews and Haredim alike. He was endorsed by several Satmar leaders and Assemblymember Simcha Eichenstein, who represents Boro Park in the state legislature. Restler has also won the support of The Jewish Vote, the political wing of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, a progressive Jewish organization in New York City. In 2022, he attended an annual celebration by the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council. He supports policies that would shift the development of affordable housing to nonprofits rather than for-profit businesses. Last year, he released a climate plan for his district designed to reduce emissions, expand green space and infrastructure and build coastal resiliency. He has worked to reduce trash and rats by organizing neighborhood cleanups, adding trash bins, encouraging residents to compost, and using discretionary funding to pay homeless New Yorkers to help provide sanitation services. Restler spoke with The New York Jewish Week about fighting antisemitism. “I am focused on bringing together all groups in the Jewish community to engage with people of other backgrounds and build tolerance to root out this violence,” he said.
includes portions of northeast Williamsburg, where many Hasidic Jews live.
- Jennifer Gutiérrez (D, incumbent), a former tenant organizer, has held office since 2021. She supports increasing tenant protections and shifting the development of affordable housing to nonprofits rather than for-profit businesses. She also believes in improving internet access, expanding participatory budgeting, open streets, universal 3K, and reinvesting part of the police’s budget into non-policing alternatives. As a council member, she helped pass a bill to provide no-cost doula services to marginalized neighborhoods. She previously worked as chief of staff to former City Council member Anthony Reynoso, who is now the Brooklyn Borough President. In a survey she completed for New York Jewish Agenda in 2021, Gutiérrez said she thinks the state should inspect Haredi yeshivas and intervene if they are found to not be providing adequate education in English, math and science. She also said the city should fight hate crimes by increasing culturally responsive education and funding community-based organizations dedicated to violence interruption and restorative justice practices.
includes the southern part of Crown Heights, which houses the World Headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement.
- Crystal Hudson (D, incumbent) has held office since 2021. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Hudson founded a mutual aid group to help people experiencing food insecurity and economic challenges. After assuming office, she visited the Library of Agudas Chasidei Chabad and met with members of the Jewish community there. As the chair of the City Council’s aging committee, Hudson supports the Fair Pay in Home Care Act, a bill being considered in the state legislature that would increase the minimum wage for home care aides to $22.50 in New York City. In September, Hudson introduced a package of bills to make it easier for older New Yorkers to age in their homes. The bills would ensure a right to counsel for people 60+ who are facing eviction, ensure older adults have access to services in their native language, and make it so that a portion of new apartments built are accessible to people with disabilities, among other things. Hudson’s other priorities include child care, affordable housing and holding the NYPD accountable.
includes a small part of Boro Park northwest of Maimonides Medical Center.
- Alexa Avilés (D, incumbent) is a democratic socialist. Before joining the City Council, she worked in nonprofits and was a PTA president. As chair of the council’s public housing committee, she supports increasing tenant protections. Her priorities also include defunding the NYPD, investing in social services and expanding public hospitals. Boro Park 24 reported that when Avilés was first elected in 2021, she volunteered at Masbia, a local soup kitchen, and praised its work.
- Erik Frankel, who is Jewish, is a fourth-generation shoe store owner. His priorities include building affordable housing and supporting trade schools. He supports removing the BQE or placing it underground. In 2021, he told New York Jewish Agenda he supports increasing criminal penalties for hate crimes. He said he doesn’t think the state should investigate Haredi yeshivas, which have reportedly failed to teach students English, math and science.
- Christopher Skelly (Ind) is a public school custodian and a libertarian who supports the NYPD. If elected to City Council, he hopes to create an Office of Transparency.
includes part of Boro Park northeast of 42nd Street, and Kensington, where many Haredi Jews also live.
- Shahana Hanif (D, incumbent), a former tenant organizer, has held office since 2021. As chair of the council’s immigration committee, she supports asylum seekers’ rights. She also advocates defunding the police, expanding protections for small businesses, expanding health services, legalizing basement apartments, and making sure social services are accessible to New Yorkers in their native languages. In 2019, after a group of boys were picked up by the local precinct for throwing eggs at their Jewish neighbors, Hanif brought together a coalition to educate Boro Park and Kensington residents about antisemitism and hate in Bangla and Yiddish.
includes part of Flatbush, which hosts Sephardic and Haredi communities.
- Rita Joseph (D, incumbent) is chair of the council’s education committee. Before joining the City Council, she worked at the U.N. and then as a public school teacher. She supports a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and welcomes the asylum seekers who have recently arrived in the city. In an interview with WNYC, she discussed crime; “Neighborhoods that are under-resourced always have the most crimes. So we want to make sure we’re bringing resources into the community to support job training, housing, youth services and education,” she said. “NYPD is part of the solution, but not the whole solution." She also emphasized cleaning up trash on Flatbush Avenue, and she has funded tree planting in the district. Last year, Joseph called attention to antisemitic subway graffiti on Twitter and notified the NYPD and MTA. “I condemn this hate in the strongest possible terms,” she wrote.
includes part of Boro Park southwest of Maimonides Medical Center, where many Hasidic Jews live. It also includes parts of Bensonhurst and Gravesend, where many Syrian Jews live. Newly created from sections of District 47 as part of the redistricting process, District 43 has no incumbent.
- Wai Yee Chan (D) is the director of Homecrest Community Services, a nonprofit that serves Asian American immigrants and seniors in Southern Brooklyn. She also serves on the Language Assistance Advisory Committee of the city’s Civic Engagement Commission. Chan told Gotham Gazette that her biggest priorities include public safety, improving services for special needs families, and expanding mental health care so that it covers all seniors in the district.
- Stanley Ng (D) is a retired computer programmer. His priorities include public safety, improving education, and fighting food insecurity. In 2007, he fought against a free course designed to help students ace admissions tests for elite public high schools. The program emphasized serving Black and Latino students, who are underrepresented at elite public schools. Ng sued the program, arguing that it discriminated against Asian Americans, and the lawsuit was settled.
- Ying Tan is a candidate for City Council. Shtetl has not been able to find more information about Tan but will update this article when it does.
- Susan Zhuang (D) is Chief of Staff for state Assemblymember William Colton, who represents parts of South Brooklyn. Her priorities include education, safety, and combating hate crimes. According to an interview with Gotham Gazette, she wants to increase funding for the NYPD.
includes most of Boro Park, one of the centers of the Haredi community. Communities in Boro Park include the Hasidic sects Bobov, Ger, Satmar, Belz, Munkatch and more. Some Litvish, Sephardic and Modern Orthodox Jews also live in Boro Park.
- Kalman Yeger (D, incumbent) is an Orthodox Jewish lawyer, who has represented Boro Park since 2017. He succeeded David Greenfield, who went on to become the CEO of the Met Council. In 2019, Yeger was removed from the council’s immigration committee when he said “Palestine does not exist.” Yeger has used discretionary funding for Holocaust education, youth programs, workforce development, fighting domestic violence, services for elderly New Yorkers and more; he’s also supported local Jewish organizations. According to City and State, however, Yeger has never asked the council speaker to fund projects in his district, something most other council members do, as a way of accessing more discretionary funding. After the New York Times published an investigation of Haredi yeshivas, detailing their failure to provide secular education and the corporal punishment that students there face, Yeger defended the education that these schools provide. Yeger successfully opposed plans for a new apartment building at 1880 Coney Island Avenue. He also opposed a proposal that would require car owners to get permits to park in residential areas.
- Heshy Tischler (R) is an Orthodox Jewish landlord, radio show host, and permit expediter for construction companies. He garnered wider attention in 2020, when he protested against COVID-19 restrictions in Boro Park. He later pled guilty to inciting a riot against a journalist who was covering those protests for Jewish Insider. He also attracted controversy for sexist comments about former mayor Bill de Blasio’s wife Chirlane McCray. He supports Donald Trump and the NYPD. Tischler volunteers for multiple causes, including helping people with special needs. If elected, he hopes to decrease bureaucracy, build youth centers and drug rehabilitation centers, support after-school childcare programs, and introduce legislation to support landlords and small business owners against late payment fees. Tischler supports Haredi yeshivas’ independence.
includes Marine Park, where the Haredi population has grown in recent years as some have been priced out of other Brooklyn Haredi enclaves.
- Mercedes Narcisse (D, incumbent) has represented parts of Southeast Brooklyn in the City Council since 2021. Narcisse was a nurse for 30 years and also ran her own business. Her priorities include access to mental health care, after-school programs, sports, and music programs for youth. She hopes to help bring ferry service to Canarsie.
includes Coney Island and a small part of Gravesend. The old District 47, which includes Bensonhurst and Gravesend, is currently represented by Ari Kagan. Because of redistricting, that district has been divided into other districts. In this unusual situation, Kagan has been left to battle the sitting City Council member of District 43, Justin Brannan, to represent the new District 47.
- Justin Brannan (D, incumbent) represents Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst and Bath Beach in the City Council. As chair of the council’s finance committee, Brannan has a powerful role in shaping the city budget. When he campaigned for office in 2017, he was criticized for taking money from real estate interests and accused of neglecting to disclose all campaign expenses. While in office, he has cosponsored and helped pass the city’s new salary transparency law and, according to Brooklyn Paper, was instrumental in bringing to Bay Ridge a ferry route that goes express to Wall Street. He hopes to help bring a ferry to Coney Island, too. Appearing on WNYC, Brannan called public safety his first priority and suggested that much of the discourse surrounding crime is driven by hysteria generated by right-wing news media. “When you walk down the street, do you really not feel safe, or do you not feel safe because the New York Post and Fox News is telling you that you shouldn’t feel safe?” he said.
- Ari Kagan (R, incumbent) is a Jewish immigrant from Belarus whose parents survived the Holocaust. He has represented parts of South Brooklyn in the City Council since 2021. He has also worked as a journalist for Russian-language media. His priorities include supporting the NYPD, increasing access to mental health services and restoring the Coney Island Boardwalk. In 2022, Kagan switched parties from Democrat to Republican because he disagreed with Democrats over public safety and other issues. Speaking to NY1, Kagan attributed recent antisemitic attacks to bail reform.
- Anthony Batista Perez (D), a U.S. Army veteran, worked for state Assemblymember Mathylde Frontus, who represents parts of southern Brooklyn in the legislature.
- Anna Belfiore-Delfaus (R) is a public school special education teacher who strongly supports the NYPD and opposed COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
- Avery Pereira (R) is a public school special education teacher. He supports the NYPD and advocates cutting property taxes for middle-class homeowners by 15%.
- Michael Ragusa (R) is an associate director of operations at Rikers Island. He is also a podcaster and former EMT. He supports increasing the number of police on streets, in parks and on subway platforms, and cracking down on fare evasion. Ragusa’s other priorities include helping small businesses, improving education, improving mental health services, and improving subway and bus service.
includes portions of Flatbush, along with Sheepshead Bay, which has a large Haredi community and a large Russian and Ukrainian Jewish community.
- Inna Vernikov (R, incumbent) is a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant. She is a lawyer who has represented parts of southern Brooklyn in the City Council since 2021. As a council member, she has protested COVID-19 vaccine mandates. She also organized a march against antisemitism after a man was attacked in Bay Ridge for wearing an Israel Defense Forces hoodie. Previously a Donald Trump supporter, she condemned the former president in 2022 after he had dinner with prominent antisemites Ye (formerly Kanye West) and Nick Fuentes. Vernikov stopped giving discretionary funding to The Museum of Jewish Heritage after it allegedly barred Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis from speaking there. She also cut discretionary funding to the CUNY School of Law after its faculty council passed a pro-BDS resolution. Vernikov’s priorities also include supporting the NYPD and reducing trash and rats in her district.
- Amber Adler (D), who is Orthodox Jewish, has worked in communications, marketing, and politics. Adler spent two years as an agunah (a woman whose husband won’t grant her a divorce under Jewish law) and made an appearance on the controversial reality show “My Unorthodox Life” to advocate for women escaping abusive marriages. Along with women’s rights, Adler’s biggest priorities include tenant rights, health care, the environment, supporting small businesses, expanding childcare, supporting students with special needs, and making the city more accessible to people with disabilities. She also hopes to break language barriers by providing access to information in residents’ native languages, including Yiddish. In a survey she completed for New York Jewish Agenda in 2021, Adler indicated that she supports increasing penalties for hate crimes. She also said she would consider supporting investigations and interventions in Haredi yeshivas on a case-by-case basis.
- Igor Kazatsker (R) has worked as a journalist for Russian-language media. According to his LinkedIn profile, he was also general manager of the American Forum of Russian Jewry-Russian American Jews for Israel.
includes Staten Island neighborhoods Willowbrook and Manor Heights which, in the last few years, have become home to many Hasidic families.
- David Carr (R, incumbent) hopes to expand the size of the city’s police force and restore qualified immunity, a legal principle that protects police officers from certain civil rights lawsuits. New York City banned qualified immunity in 2021. “I think we need to do more to empower the police, raise morale so we have fewer people seeking to retire or resign from the department, and then also have a plan to rebuild to get us to a point where we have a police force that’s actually adequate to police a city that’s closer and closer to 9 million people,” Carr told WNYC. Recently, the council passed his bill to lower interest rates for some property tax late fees. He criticized COVID-19 vaccine mandates.