With the year’s new class assignments, Mrs. Atara Segal becomes the first woman to teach Gemara in an Orthodox high school in LA

SCHOLAR: Gemara and AP Statistics teacher Mrs. Atara Segal, pictured here teaching in the old building in 2013,  will move to Israel next year to become a yoetzet halacha.

Dorelle Nahmany

SCHOLAR: Gemara and AP Statistics teacher Mrs. Atara Segal, pictured here teaching in the old building in 2013, will move to Israel next year to become a yoetzet halacha.

Mati Hurwitz, Torah Editor

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Breaking barriers at least in Los Angeles, Judaic Studies teacher Mrs. Atara Segal became the first woman teaching Gemara in an LA Orthodox high school this fall when she added a 10th-grade Talmud track to her other classes at Shalhevet.

In her third year here, Mrs. Segal is teaching onesophomore Talmud class, along with two freshman Tanakh classes and an AP Statistics course.

Principal Reb Noam Weissman said the reason for giving her the class was simple.

“She is a real Torah scholar and an excellent role model,” Reb Noam said.

Although it is a rarity to find an Orthodox female Talmud instructor, Mrs. Segal has done it before and doesn’t consider it newsworthy.

“It’s not a big deal,” said Mrs. Segal about her new role. “Anybody who is qualified should be able to teach anybody.”

Mrs. Segal attended a Bais Yaakov-type high school called Shevach in Queens, New York, and did not learn Gemara in high school herself. Her first taste of Talmud study was at Michlala, a seminary in Israel.

She also delved into Gemara at Stern College of Yeshiva University for a couple of years and studied History of halachaat YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies.

“I’ve learned Gemara, I’ve taught Gemara…it’s just part of my experience,” Mrs. Segal said.

Mrs. Segal also taught Talmud at Beren Academy in Houston, in addition to giving classes and shiurim in both Houston and now in Los Angeles.

“It doesn’t feel like a big step for me” to teach it again at Shalhevet, she said.

But Mrs. Segal is one of a kind for Orthodox schools in Los Angeles. Whether it is because most schools are not co-ed to begin with or because there is a level of discomfort with a break from tradition, no school has asked a woman to teach Gemara here before – including Shalhevet.

Here, her position is respected.

“I don’t think the gender of the teacher affects the quality of the knowledge,” said sophomore Yonah Feld, a student in Mrs. Segal’s Talmud class. “She is very smart and knows what she’s doing.”

His classmate Sarah Mankowitz agreed.

“I don’t feel there is a difference if the teacher is a female,” Sarah said.

Aside from being the first Orthodox school to have a female Talmud teacher, Shalhevet is also the only one offering Gemara classes to girls. YULA, Valley Torah, MBY, Yeshiva Gedolah and others have all-male campuses and only rabbis teaching Gemara.

Mrs. Segal is not one of her kind on the West Coast. Ms.Malka Popper of Northwest Yeshiva High in Seattle instructs two Talmud according to Judaic Studies head Rabbi Bernie Fox.

“We seek [to] place the most effective instructor available in each section,” Rabbi Fox told The Boiling Point in an e-mail message.

Others agree an educator is an educator regardless of gender. That is the case in many schools elsewhere in the U.S., especially in the day-school-heavy New York area, where Orthodox schools have a broad range of religious ideologies and female Talmud educators, though relatively new, are not uncommon. Among the schools back East that have female Gemara teachers are SAR in Riverdale and North Shore Hebrew Academy in Great Neck.

At some schools, especially non-co-ed schools, girls don’t even learn Gemara. The website for YULA Girls High School says students there learn Chumash, Dinim, Navi and Ketuvim, Jewish History, and Jewish Philosophy in their Judaic Studies classes.

Efforts to reach administrators at YULA Girls High School about why no Gemara is taught there were unsuccessful, but Mrs. Segal said some people cite a Gemara that states, “If you teach your daughters Gemara, it is like you’re teaching her silliness.” Some rabbis consider this statement “proscriptive,” she said, meaning that it is literally applicable to what should be done, and for that reason don’t teach girls Talmud.

She added that many of those same rabbis rule that girls should not learn the Oral Torah, but they do let their daughters study Rashi and commentaries that quote Midrashim and Gemaras.  They are effectively learning the Oral Torah anyway, she said, since commentaries are not part of the Tanach.

“It’s hard to find women who are qualified,” said Mrs. Segal. “There is a prevalent notion that it is a male domain so I think people are particularly nervous for a woman to teach boys.”

Even now at Shalhevet, Mrs. Segal only teaches one Gemara class so most classes still have male guides.

Other people still feel genuinely uncomfortable with the thought of a female Talmud teacher.

“I’d feel a bit uncomfortable, given what we’re currently learning,” said YULA junior Jordan Lustman. “We’re learning things that have to do with kiddushin [betrothal and marriage] and biya [marital intimacy], and I’d feel uncomfortable with a female teaching me that.”

Jordan believes it may not give him the best classroom experience.

“I don’t really know if it would ruin my experience,” Jordan said. “It may disrupt my learning a bit.”

Shalhevet sophomore Jonah Gill said that had to do with the particular subject matter, not with Gemara.

“The Gemara that Jordan is referencing is an example of something that might be uncomfortable to learn with a woman, but that’s no different than learning about something personal with a male if you’re a female,” Jonah said. “It’s no different from learning about the reproductive system in Biology with a female teacher if you’re a male.”

A female Gemara teacher might be untraditional and might even seem uncomfortable at first, said Jonah, “but it’s really just a way to get the best teacher into the classroom, in a way that will best suit his or her teaching.”

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