Orthodox Jewish women ordained as first class of a ‘different kind of leader’

By Michele Alperin/JNS.org

On the surface, Sunday’s ordination ceremony for the first three graduates of Bronx, NY-based Yeshivat Maharat—the first institution to train Orthodox women as spiritual leaders and halakhic authorities—marked a historic moment for the Jewish community.

Click photo to download. Caption: From left to right, at the June 16 Yeshivat Maharat ordination ceremony in New York: Rabba Sara Hurwitz (dean of Yeshivat Maharat), Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold, and Maharat Abby Brown Scheier. Credit: Maxine Dovere.

But Rabbi Jeffrey S. Fox, rosh yeshiva (academic dean) of Yeshivat Maharat, does not view the institution as trailblazing or revolutionary.

“On the ground, on a day-to-day basis, what we are doing is very normal, especially for these women who grew up in the modern Orthodox world, where they had access to the same level of Jewish education as their male friends,” Fox told JNS.org.

Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Rachel Kohl Finegold, and Abby Brown Scheier—who completed a four-year program modeled off a traditional semikha (ordination) program and earned the title “Maharat,” an acronym for legal, spiritual, and Talmudic leader—at Sunday’s ceremony in New York City were “found worthy of being granted the authority to teach and determine halakhic rulings to the Jewish people and… ordained as spiritual leaders and decisors of Jewish law.” Rabbi Avi Weiss, founder of Yeshiva Maharat, stated that there are no halakhic barriers to women’s ordination.

What is new about Yeshivat Maharat, according to Fox, is that the graduates have secured jobs within the Orthodox community in accordance with their training. “You can give them the best education and the community can choose to call them whatever they want, but if we don’t give them jobs, it is not worth anybody’s time and money,” Fox told JNS.org.

Yeshiva Maharat is shaping a role for women in clergy that does not involve serving as a prayer leader, which women are not allowed to do under Jewish law. “In a certain sense we are looking to create a different kind of leader,” Fox said. “There is a certain type of leader who leads from a place of davening (prayer) and another who leads from place of learning, and that type of leadership has a certain power to it.”

For Yeshivat Maharat board member Rabbi Dan Smokler—whose wife Erin Leib Smokler teaches students at the yeshiva to integrate Jewish texts into services and pastoral work—the yeshiva is an answer to his dream of being able to tell the passionate, brilliant Orthodox Jewish women he sees as a Hillel rabbi at New York University that they can become leaders in the Orthodox Jewish community.

“I think the inclusion of women, who are more than half the population, in the spiritual, legal, and scholarly leadership of Orthodox faiths is of central importance to the era we are living in,” Smokler told JNS.org.

Rabba Sara Hurwitz, dean and cofounder of Yeshivat Maharat, is a nuts-and-bolts fundraiser (of $4 million thus far), board developer, and infrastructure creator for the growing yeshiva, which began in September 2009 and now has 14 students.

Hurwitz maintains that none of the halakhic limitations on women will affect the graduates’ clerical duties. “Women don’t count in a minyan, can’t serve on a bet din, and don’t lead certain parts of services, but they can create a presence on Shabbat morning, and can speak from the bima, can give a dvar halakhah,” she told JNS.org.

Rachel Kohl Finegold, who came to the ordination ceremony with a two-week-old infant in tow, has been working for six years with Rabbi Asher Lopatin, rabbi of Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago and the next president of the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbinical institute for men, which was started by Rabbi Weiss. In 2009, she went to Hurwitz’s conferral ceremony and heard her speak about opening Yeshivat Maharat.

“I realized this was training I had never had for this role I was in,” Finegold told JNS.org. “The kind of learning Yeshivat Maharat offered was different from anything I had done before, and it would allow me a certain clarity around my role vis-à-vis relating to congregants and people really seeing me as clergy.”

Finegold does not view herself as a rebel, but sees her ordination as the next step in the process of the Orthodox community taking women’s learning seriously. “We’re standing on the shoulders of all the women who came years and years before,” she said. “The fact that I was given a Talmud to open and study was because women in the ’70s and ’80s pushed for it.”

“The fact that everybody has a job means that the community is ready for us and interested in us,” Finegold added.

Starting in August, Finegold will be joining the clergy of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Westmount, Quebec, Canada—which has 1,500 families, compared to her current synagogue’s 375—as director of education and spiritual enrichment.

Abby Brown Scheier, whose father is an ordained Conservative rabbi and a professor at York University in Toronto, and her mother a Jewish educator, said of her career choice, “Despite convincing myself that I would not be a Jewish educator because both of my parents were, I ended up doing it somehow—it’s in my blood.”

It never dawned on Scheier that she “would ever be able to go to a program that would be the equivalent to a traditional rabbinical school.”

“When Yeshivat Maharat opened, it seemed like the obvious thing to do,” she told JNS.org.

Scheier, who has four children under 7, is not interested in pulpit work, but will continue teaching in the community as well as tutoring privately for the National Bible Contest, bar mitzvahs, and conversions. Scheier’s husband is the rabbi of the synagogue where her classmate, Finegold, has been hired.

Ruth Balinsky Friedman, after earning a bachelor’s degree from Barnard College in psychology and Jewish studies, opted to spend an intensive year studying Jewish texts at the Drisha Institute to broaden her Jewish education. “I was thinking about grad school in psychology but something in me knew that wasn’t what I totally wanted to do,” she told JNS.org.

Having spent so much time with people studying to be Jewish spiritual leaders while she was at Drisha, she thought, “Hey, this is something I want to do also.” Aware that some Orthodox women were working in synagogues, she said, “I knew this was a glove that fit and this was a path that right for me even though I didn’t know where it would lead me.”

Friedman will be working at Ohev Sholom, the National Synagogue, as Maharat, alongside head rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, in all areas of synagogue life.

Beyond being able to do the work she loves, Friedman sees herself paving the way for other Jewish women to do the same.

“A second layer is to [set a] model for girls in the future to feel this is something they can be, too—they can be leaders in the Jewish community if that is something they want to do,” she said.

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Posted on June 18, 2013 and filed under Features, U.S., Jewish Life.