Ordaining women in the Jewish community

June 30, 2013 22:03
4 minute read.
Female rabbi being ordained

Female rabbi being ordained 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/POOL New)

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 Kohl-Finegold.

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 leadership.

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 Jewish law.

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.

Chazak: Our 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.

This 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 leadership.

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 clergy.

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.

And each of our graduates has accepted jobs. Rachel Kohl-Finegold will be serving as clergy at Montreal’s Congregation Shaar Hashomayim alongside Rabbi Adam Scheier.

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 community.

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, 65:5).

V’nitchzek: The Community will be Strengthened.

As Ruth 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.

Serving as 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 communal life.

And now, young girls can look to female spiritual leaders as their role models, perhaps inspiring them to pursue a similar career path.

Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek.

The writer is on the rabbinic staff at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, and is the dean of Yeshivat Maharat.

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