Orthodox woman appointed to serve as communal spiritual leader in Efrat

Efrat’s municpal chief rabbi Shlomo Riskin selects Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld in what is perhaps the first appointment of its kind in Israel in the Orthodox world.

Jennie Rosenfeld (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jennie Rosenfeld
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The settlement of Efrat will soon have a new Orthodox religious leader to turn to for questions on religious life and Jewish law, and she is a woman.
In what is perhaps is the first appointment of its kind in Israel in the Orthodox world, Dr.
Jennie Rosenfeld was recently selected by Efrat’s municipal chief rabbi, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin to serve as a communal spiritual leader for Efrat’s residents, who will be able to approach her with questions concerning Jewish law and ask for advice on matters of religious life.
The notion of women in Orthodox Judaism acting as spiritual leaders, and more particularly issuing halachic decisions, is a very new development and is not widely accepted, especially within the haredi community, as well as parts of the national-religious sector.
Rosenfeld is currently enrolled in the five-year program for women at the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute for Halachic Leadership (WIHL) at Midreshet Lindenbaum, a modern-Orthodox women’s seminary that ordains women to give instruction and rulings in Jewish law.
According to Rabbi Shmuel Klitsner, director of the WIHL, Rosenfeld’s appointment is the first time a woman in the country has been appointed to an official position of communal leadership within an Orthodox framework.
The position is not however being financed by the Efrat religious council, and Rosenfeld will therefore not be a public employee, so the job is being funded by private donations raised by Riskin.
Nevertheless, Rosenfeld will be available to residents to provide them with spiritual leadership and support, especially for newlyweds, those in mourning, converts and divorcing couples, all constituents who are going through major life transitions and who frequently require such advice and guidance.
A resume with Rosenfeld’s contact details was sent out to Efrat residents to inform them of the availability of a new source for religious guidance.
She will be available on Fridays at the offices of the Efrat Religious Council, as well as by email and telephone during the rest of the week, while she will also give lectures and lessons in Jewish law in the city.
The officials in the religious council will also refer those with questions about various aspects of religious life to her.
Rosenfeld’s inaugural lecture next month will deal with speaking to and educating children about physical intimacy.
While noting that she would be available to both men and women, Rosenfeld said that having women in religious communal leadership roles would help women in particular feel more comfortable in seeking advice in the realm of Jewish law pertaining to different life choices and decisions.
“Women are 50 percent of the community and there are questions which women are less comfortable asking men, not just in the field of family purity but relating to children’s education, marriage, divorce and other issues,” she told The Jerusalem Post.
Rosenfeld said that when Orthodox women began providing halachic guidance, specifically in the realm of family purity, the need for such a position was made even more apparent only after such women started taking up such roles, when large numbers of women began making use of the new resource.
She said the requirement for having female spiritual leaders could similarly be realized only after women start taking such positions.
“The significance and requirement of having women in spiritual leadership roles might not be fully realized or appreciated until they are in place and available to the wider public,” she said.
Although women in positions of religious leadership is a new and hotly debated development, Klitsner said he believed the modern-Orthodoxy community in Israel was ripe for this development and that it had received public support.
Rosenfeld herself pointed to the Book of Judges and noted that the prophetess Deborah gave judgment in biblical times, setting the precedent for women to take positions of religious leadership and issue decisions on Jewish law.
She said however that she would frequently consult with her own religious teachers on specific matters of religious law at the beginning of her tenure, noting that it was natural for religious leaders taking up a first position to be cautious in their issuance of halachic decisions.
Riskin, who was the main proponent for adding a female spiritual leader to the religious leadership in Efrat, called the development welcome and necessary, saying he hoped it would be replicated by Orthodox communities around the country.
“We are blessed to live in a generation where there are women who are qualified to lead and provide guidance.
Enabling these talented and altruistic women to strengthen Judaism and the Jewish community should not be considered revolutionary; on the contrary, it is a move which is late in coming,” he continued.
“We have confidence that her presence will prove crucial and beneficial to the community at large. With time, we believe that the municipal and governmental authorities too will recognize the need for female spiritual leadership and budget these positions by law.”
Riskin “strongly encourages...
rabbinic colleagues throughout Israel to follow suit...” and believes female spiritual leaders serving alongside municipal rabbis will advance Israeli trust in and pride and love for Judaism and will ultimately hasten the redemption.”