When I graduated from Yeshivat Maharat in June, a reporter asked me: “Do you
consider yourself a trailblazer?” Surprisingly, the question stumped
It is hard to deny that I am a trailblazer. I am forging a new path
for Orthodox women – having just received ordination from the first institution
to train Orthodox women to become members of clergy.
But did I set out to
do something groundbreaking? Not really.
I came to Yeshivat Maharat out
of a desire to gain the training that would allow me to do my job more
effectively. When I entered the program, I was already serving in a clergy
capacity without formal credentials.
As the education and ritual director
of a modern- Orthodox synagogue, I have spent the past six years being a
religious resource to our members. In addition to my work organizing educational
programming for youth and adults as well as running our new mikveh, I delivered
divrei Torah from the pulpit, fielded halachic questions from congregants, and
served in a variety of pastoral capacities.
I stepped into this role
without formal training, and that meant it was harder to do my job. When I
received halachic questions, I wasn’t always sure I was qualified to answer
them. Congregants themselves would sometimes ask a question with the caveat,
“Maybe you or your husband can answer this for me.” (I happen to be married to a
rabbi.) People would not know how to introduce me to their visiting friends or
family: “This is Rachel. She is our... what do we call you?” I felt that
enrolling in Yeshivat Maharat would allow me to formalize my religious
leadership role, not only allowing me to confidently answer the questions that
came my way but also create more clarity for those whose religious needs I
I made the decision to enroll in Yeshivat Maharat despite the
fact that it would label me a trailblazer, not because of it.
It is also
hard to see myself as a trailblazer when I am in the company of so many other
Orthodox women filling important roles in religious leadership in all corners of
the Orthodox community. In addition to the efforts on behalf of Yoatzot Halacha
trained by Nishmat, as well as the important work of toanot beit din (rabbinic
court advocates), there are countless other settings where Orthodox women have
become leaders without a formal title attached to them.
These women work
in synagogues, on college campuses and in day schools. I also think of the
Chabad rebbetzins who are strong leaders and teachers in their own communities,
as well as women in the yeshivish world, such as kallah teachers and bodkos, who
help educate newly married young women in the laws of Niddah.
also many rebbetzins in the haredi world who teach and inspire female followers.
While these communities would balk at the idea of women receiving ordination,
and these women would not consider themselves members of clergy, it is hard to
deny that they are serving as religious leaders and teachers. I count these
women among my peers.
And that is the key. Each corner of the Orthodox
world must continue to find its comfort zone, where women can step into
leadership without breaching communal norms. Many have asked me for a reaction
to the RCA’s statement, which called Yeshivat Maharat’s ordination of women as
clergy “a violation of our mesorah [tradition].”
Would I have liked the
RCA to be more supportive of the Maharat endeavor? Sure. But does their stance
negatively affect my ability to do my job, or to have impact on those I serve?
No. Large parts of the Orthodox community are not only supportive, but are
actively reaching out to hire Maharat graduates; there were more positions open
than there were graduates this year.
The RCA statement, as well as other
voices of opposition to the Maharat effort, is less about me, and more about
them. It is part of that institution’s own process of finding an acceptable way
to welcome women into religious leadership.
The statement begins by
extolling the various women’s learning efforts and leadership
The RCA may not be comfortable with the step being taken
by Yeshivat Maharat, but they strongly endorse women’s leadership in a variety
of forms, and this is a positive step for Orthodox women (and men)
Yeshivat Maharat has taken the important step of offering
formalized training for women, which creates a career path for women who choose
to step into clergy. But women are functioning in these capacities in a variety
of settings in our community, and each corner of the Orthodox world is grappling
with what that can look like.
So am I a trailblazer? I have spent the
early years of my career putting one foot in front of the other, looking for a
path into Jewish education and leadership that’s right for me, and I stumbled
upon Yeshivat Maharat at the right time. If this makes me a trailblazer, then so
But I did not set out on this path in order to make a statement or
be groundbreaking. I know I speak for my fellow Maharat students when I say that
we have all tried to find the most meaningful and effective way to contribute to
the future of the Jewish people. If that involves blazing a few trails, then we
will blaze on.