Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek.
This phrase is traditionally recited in
synagogue when a book of the Torah is completed. And recently, with tremendous
joy, on June 16, 2013/8 Tammuz 5773, Yeshivat Maharat also reached a milestone,
graduating its first class of Orthodox women, granting semicha (rabbinic
ordination) to Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Abby Brown-Scheier and Rachel
After four years of intensive study to master areas of
Halacha and Talmud, with a curriculum emphasizing pastoral and leadership
training, three more women will now be serving the Jewish community as ordained
clergy in Orthodox synagogues, and as Jewish educators.
This will most
certainly strengthen the Orthodox Jewish community in North America, benefitting
the Jewish people as a whole.
Chazak: Our Students are Ordained The
graduation ceremony marked the first time that institutional semicha was granted
to Orthodox women. It was an historic moment, because up until now, women with a
passion to serve had to carve out their own path to prepare them for spiritual
But Yeshivat Maharat has created a curriculum modeled after
traditional rabbinic training programs, where students learn the laws of Niddah,
Shabbat, kashrut, life-cycle events, and issues in orach chaim (the laws
pertaining to daily living), with the intent of becoming poskot – decisors of
As interns in synagogues, communal organizations, and
university Hillels, they gained first-hand experience with some of the sensitive
issues that arise in the work of a pastoral caregiver. Our graduates have been
training for the past four years to teach, lead and guide people through their
most difficult and joyous moments. They have passed rigorous oral and written
examinations administered by the ordaining rabbis and have been trained as
sensitive pastoral guides, and halachic decisors.
Granting semicha will
certify our graduates with the authority and ability to do their jobs well. The
degree confirms the powerful role that female spiritual and halachic leaders
play in Jewish communal life. Now, the community can draw from 100 percent of
the Orthodox population to serve as passionate leaders, who are committed to
Halacha, but open and sensitive pastoral counselors.
Community is Strong Fours years ago, when I was ordained, I was accused of
weakening and fracturing the Orthodox community. It was a lonely time, with our
detractors overpowering the voice of righteousness and justice.
time, the voices of integrity and courage have prevailed. Over the past four
years, Yeshivat Maharat has been building a community of supporters and
advocates of women in spiritual leadership. We have traveled to communities all
over North America to help people recognize the benefits of female spiritual
We built an experienced advisory board made up of Orthodox
rabbis and female leaders, and created an executive board of talented and
accomplished lay leaders who support women in the role of
Students and faculty travel to communities across North America
as scholars-in-residence, painting a picture of a new kind of rabbinic model,
with men and women working in partnership to serve the community.
each of our graduates has accepted jobs. Rachel Kohl-Finegold will be serving as
clergy at Montreal’s Congregation Shaar Hashomayim alongside Rabbi Adam
Ruth Balinsky-Friedman will be serving as clergy at Ohev Sholom-
The National Synagogue, in Washington, DC, alongside Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld. Abby
Brown-Scheier will be principal of the Hebrew school at Congregation Shaar
Hashomayim in Montreal, and a Jewish educator in the larger Montreal
In addition, Rori Picker-Neiss will be completing her fourth
year of study while serving as a member of the clergy at Bais Abraham Synagogue
in St. Louis.
Looking to the 2012-2014 academic year, students will be
interning in synagogues, as chaplains, and on university campuses, and Yeshivat
Maharat has received more requests from sites looking to host interns than there
are available students to fill these positions.
The community is ready
for female Jewish leadership and has begun to turn to Orthodox women with
ordination for spiritual and halachic guidance. Indeed, there is no Halacha that
bars a woman from assuming this role. Rabbi Bakshi Doron, former chief rabbi of
Israel (1993), ruled unequivocally that “women can be of the Gedolim [great
leaders] of the generation and serve as halachic decisors” (Responsa Binyan Av,
V’nitchzek: The Community will be Strengthened.
Balinsky-Friedman, Rachel Kohl-Finegold and Abby Brown-Scheier crossed the
threshold and accepted their ordination, we, as women begin to become a
multitude – “Achotaynu, at hayi lealfay r’veva” (Genesis 24:60). This is the
beginning of a new reality, an Orthodox world comprised of men and women leading
and inspiring the Jewish community together.
Some will say this is not
the time, that we are pushing an agenda. I respectfully disagree. Many men and
women have left Orthodox Judaism, feeling that it did not have a place for them.
I believe that scholarly Orthodox women with a passion for Torah are essential
role models who will keep communities engaged.
People are thirsting for
spiritual guidance, and for those who feel uninspired and lost, Yeshivat Maharat
represents a new face of serious and genuine Orthodox leadership – steeped in
Jewish text, but open to meeting people where they are at.
clergy is one of the highest honors one can fulfill; it is a calling that brings
with it a tremendous responsibility. The presence of female clergy standing next
to women mourners reciting Kaddish, or teaching from the pulpit, or leading some
of the communal prayers, engages and includes women in the ritual experiences of
And now, young girls can look to female spiritual leaders
as their role models, perhaps inspiring them to pursue a similar career
Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek.
The writer is on the rabbinic
staff at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, and is the dean of Yeshivat Maharat.