Orthodox Yeshiva Set To Ordain Three Women. Just Don’t Call Them ‘Rabbi.’
The first graduating class at Yeshivat Maharat may not have the title, but they do have jobs at Orthodox synagogues
Two graduating maharats have already found employment as spiritual leaders (the third graduating maharat, Brown Scheier, wasn’t seeking employment), as has Rori Picker Neiss, who is still in her third year.
“It feels so different from 2009,” said Hurwitz. “We spent all this time traveling, garnering support. There’s a palatable excitement from the community.”
The jobs these women will be starting are not merely advisory roles but clerical roles that require smicha.
“This is a pastoral role,” said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of the National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., which recently hired Balinsky Friedman. “She will be teaching Torah, working with people, and deciding questions of Jewish law. She has been through formal training that qualifies her to do this, and she has already begun to answer halakhic questions for members of the community.” Friedman’s salary, he said, will be comparable to that of an assistant rabbi exiting rabbinical school.
Rabbi Adam Scheier of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim of Montreal recently hired Kohl Finegold. “We met her in the course of our search for an assistant rabbi,” he said, “and decided to expand our search, with the really overwhelming and enthusiastic support of our community as well as the administration.” Shaar Hashomayim is the biggest Orthodox congregation in Canada, with 1,400 families. Kohl Finegold’s responsibilities will include speaking from the pulpit and answering halakhic questions, as well as giving classes, making hospital visits, and visiting the homebound. When I asked Scheier if he thinks of her as a rabbi, he responded, “I think of her as a maharat. It’s a new model, and we’re excited by that newness.”
Scheier got some flak for a speech he made on Shavuot about hiring Kohl Finegold, in which he stated, “We are unapologetically Orthodox, and we are unapologetically modern. … This is a not a break from tradition. If you look closely enough, the women have been there all along. It’s just now that we’re recognizing their presence, and it’s just now that we’re stepping aside just a little bit to create a place for that voice to be heard in our Beit Midrash, from our pulpit, and from the other areas of Jewish life which are not halakhically limited to men, but have been traditionally perceived as the domain of men.”
Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Bais Abraham in St. Louis recently hired Picker Neiss. “We needed someone to guide the community, not just educate them,” Schafner explained. “Half of my congregation are women. To hire another male rabbi—it just felt like something was missing. She will be basically an assistant rabbi. She will essentially do what I do, playing many roles.” Shafner believes that Picker Neiss will have a wider range of outreach than she would if she were male. But beyond that, “Rori just fit the bill,” he said. “Bais Abraham is very passionate because it is Orthodox, but it’s also very laid back, and Rori was like that too—open-minded and laid back, but also very engaged.”
“They wanted someone who could fit a lot of roles,” Picker Neiss said. “And they said, well, we already have a male. And they thought, a woman would be able to do the work that this community needs. I think it was more about community-matching than about me being a woman.”
“How could the Orthodox world not be ready for this? They are hiring!” said Brown Scheier, who will continue in her nonclerical role as educator after graduating (“One pulpit rabbi in the family is enough,” explained Brown Scheier, whose husband is Congregation Shaar Hashomayim’s Rabbi Adam Scheier, about not pursuing a rabbinical role). “That says a lot about opening up the conversation. People have already been so supportive of me. To people who meet these women, it’s just so obvious that they are passionate to teach Torah and that they are and should be leaders.”
For now, the demand has exceeded the supply of maharats, with shuls and universities from Connecticut to Maryland to Florida contacting Hurwitz to request female leaders.
“The maharat graduation represents the mainstreaming of this movement within Orthodoxy,” said Elana Maryles Sztokman, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. “It is so important to have women in leadership positions. And it’s important to note that they are not starting this path today. There’s a handful of women out there who have been in quasi-rabbinical roles. The difference here is the publicness of it, the critical mass, and the legitimacy of it.”
Hurwitz concluded: “Now men and women from every denomination can help shape and serve the spiritual needs of the Jewish community.”
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