Orthodox Jewish Women Ordained as First Class of a ‘Different Kind of Leader’

June 19, 2013 5:29 am 1 comment

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. Photo: Maxine Dovere.

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.

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.

1 Comment

  • joseph r godleski

    i find this appaling i am very disapointed in what i throught was a conservative jewish sect i am christian and find appaling when a christian sect deserts the bible interpetation to follow a trend of liberalism but i cant imagine why judism a religion over 5000 years old would wish to follow the fantasy trend of a few liberals who think if you tell a women that their faith is led by men ministry you are some how excluding them or discrimating against them what is next open gay ans lesbian rabbis because you dont want gays to protest against you please grow some bollacks and stand against the wave of liberals why is it when conservatives stand up we are haters and bullies but liberals march and protest and shout slogans and slurs that offend us they are heros

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Book Reviews Personalities Biography Sheds New Light on David Ben-Gurion’s Place in Jewish History

    Biography Sheds New Light on David Ben-Gurion’s Place in Jewish History

    JNS.org – There is one sentence in “Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel” that made me sit up in surprise. I thought that I knew the basic facts about how Israel came into being, but while describing what it was like in the days and hours before the state was declared, author Anita Shapira provides one important anecdote I was not aware of. On the 12th of May, the Zionist Executive met to decide what to do. Moshe Sharrett had just returned [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada ‘Death of Klinghoffer’ Actress Compares Met Opera to ‘Schindler’s List’

    ‘Death of Klinghoffer’ Actress Compares Met Opera to ‘Schindler’s List’

    An actress starring in the controversial Met Opera The Death of Klinghoffer defended the show on Tuesday by comparing it to the 1993 Holocaust film Schindler’s List, New York Post reported. “To me, this was like [the movie] Schindler’s List. We make art so people won’t forget,’’ said the actress, who plays a captured passenger in the show and asked not to be identified. The Met Opera focuses on the infamous murder of Lower East Side Jewish resident Leon Klinghoffer, 69. The wheelchair-bound father of [...]

    Read more →
  • Analysis Arts and Culture Beyond ‘Klinghoffer’: Opera’s Composer, Librettist Have Broader Jewish Problem

    Beyond ‘Klinghoffer’: Opera’s Composer, Librettist Have Broader Jewish Problem

    JNS.org – One of the most controversial operas in recent memory, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” debuted Oct. 20 at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The Met has scheduled seven more performances through November. The first staging did not occur without protest, as about 400 demonstrators—including Jewish communal and nationally recognized leaders—came to Lincoln Center to denounce the anti-Jewish and anti-Israel opera. “Klinghoffer,” the creation of composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman, premiered in 1991—with few additional stagings. The opera is based [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Israeli Actress Gal Gadot in Talks to Star in Ben-Hur Remake

    Israeli Actress Gal Gadot in Talks to Star in Ben-Hur Remake

    Israeli actress Gal Gadot is in negotiations to take on the female lead role in the remake of the 1959 classic Ben-Hur, according to The Hollywood Reporter. If the deal is finalized Gadot will play Esther, a slave and Ben-Hur’s love interest. Actor Jack Huston will star as the Jewish prince who is betrayed into slavery by his childhood friend Messala, played by Toby Kebbell. Ben-Hur fights for his freedom and vengeance with the help of Morgan Freeman’s character, who trains Ben-Hur how to win at chariot-racing. [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports Young Israelis Try to Crowd-Fund Their Way to Major League Baseball Playoffs

    Young Israelis Try to Crowd-Fund Their Way to Major League Baseball Playoffs

    JNS.org – Baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie are the American dream. So why do two young men who have built their lives in Israel have a GoFundMe crowd-funding webpage with the urgent message that they need $3,000 to travel to the U.S. to watch the Kansas City Royals and Baltimore Orioles square off for Major League Baseball’s (MLB) American League championship? Brothers Naftali and Yoni Schwartz, 27 and 25, respectively, are Kansas City natives. Even though they made aliyah with their [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Sports Race Cars Speed Through Jerusalem in Amazing Exhibition

    Race Cars Speed Through Jerusalem in Amazing Exhibition

    Some 3,000 years ago, King David probably never imagined cars racing at 240 kilometers per hour (150 miles per hour) through the ancient capital of the Jewish people. But on Monday and Tuesday, October 6-7, thousands of Israelis lined the streets to watch Porsche, Audi, and Ferrari race cars fly through the capital against the backdrop of the Tower of David, the Old City Walls, and other city landmarks. The second annual non-competitive Jerusalem Formula One Road Show had been [...]

    Read more →
  • Israel Sports NBA Superstar LeBron James Says He Wants to Visit Israel

    NBA Superstar LeBron James Says He Wants to Visit Israel

    Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James expressed interest in visiting Israel someday, local news site Cleveland.com reported on Sunday. Speaking to Israeli reporters before the Cleveland Cavaliers’ preseason debut against Maccabi Tel Aviv, the NBA star said he had never visited the Jewish state but “I want to look forward to going there if I get an opportunity to.” When asked by an Israeli reporter if there was “any chance that LeBron James and Cleveland comes to Tel Aviv,” the athlete said [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Florida Rabbi Dominates Former Basketball Star Congressman in Hoops Showdown (VIDEO)

    Florida Rabbi Dominates Former Basketball Star Congressman in Hoops Showdown (VIDEO)

    A Florida-based Chabad rabbi put former basketball star, U.S. Congressman Curt Clawson to shame on the court when the two faced off one-on-one recently. A YouTube video, posted online on Tuesday, shows Rabbi Fishel Zaklos of Chabad of Naples shooting hoops with the Florida politician, who played basketball in high school and at Purdue University in Indiana. The game took place in the parking lot of the Chabad Jewish center run by Zaklos. During the 1-minute clip, Zaklos scores two impressive [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.