Forging a new path?

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.

July 6, 2013 23:29
4 minute read.
Yeshivat Maharat ordination ceremony in New York

Yeshivat Maharat ordination ceremony in New York521. (photo credit: Courtesy: Maxine Dovere)

When I graduated from Yeshivat Maharat in June, a reporter asked me: “Do you consider yourself a trailblazer?” Surprisingly, the question stumped me.

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 served.

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.

There are 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 opportunities.

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) everywhere.

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 be it.

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.

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