Who are Judaism's great women hassidic leaders?

Women are undeniably part of the story of hassidism, on occasion playing key roles in the evolution of the movement

 WEDDING CEREMONY of the granddaughter of the Belz Rebbe. Mea She’arim, 2014.  (photo credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)
WEDDING CEREMONY of the granddaughter of the Belz Rebbe. Mea She’arim, 2014.
(photo credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)

In the annals of hassidism, the contribution of women is often unnoticed and inaudible. Nevertheless, women are undeniably part of the story of hassidism, on occasion playing key roles in the evolution of the movement.

Thus, for example, women publishers were significant in the production of hassidic texts. There were cases where the establishment or survival of a hassidic court was the work of a woman. Some women from the hassidic community were innovators, like Sara Schenirer (1883-1935), who came from a family of Belzer Hassidim and was a pioneer in Jewish women’s education.

There were also occasional instances of women serving as hassidic leaders. Such female rebbes were on the cultural fringes of hassidism; they were exceptions to the rule of male leadership. While they provide thought-provoking chapters in the history of hassidism, they do not occupy a central place, neither in Jewish collective memory nor in hassidic circles.

With the passage of time, historical threads have been woven into the fabric of legends. Contemporary scholars continue to unravel the material, earnestly trying to recover the fascinating journeys of these women. In this way we can recount the challenges these women faced in their spiritual quests, their achievements, and the disappointments they experienced.

It seems that such female leaders are vestiges of the past. To be sure, there are women who study and teach hassidic thought, culture and history. Moreover, there are women who provide spiritual guidance and leadership – both in the hassidic world and beyond. Yet in the present climate, it is difficult to imagine a publicly acknowledged female leader in contemporary hassidic society.

Ultra orthodox Jews wear shtreimels to a traditional religious wedding ceremony in Jerusalem. (credit: REUTERS)Ultra orthodox Jews wear shtreimels to a traditional religious wedding ceremony in Jerusalem. (credit: REUTERS)

Surah Rokach

It is therefore fascinating to see the leadership role played today by Surah Rokach (b. 1946) – a woman known to some as “the ‘Admorit’ of Belz” – the female hassidic master of Belz. Surah does not refer to herself as the admorit. Emblazoned on the letterhead of her stationery is the title “Belzer Rebetzen.”

Admorit or rebbetzin – what is the subtext and significance of these titles? “Rebbetzin” – often rendered into Hebrew as rabbanit – is the traditional term for the wife of a rabbi.

In the past, the term did not necessarily indicate anything about the achievements – intellectual or spiritual – of the female bearer of the title. Calling a women rabbanit said something about her spouse. Changes may be afoot: nowadays, learned women might be called rabbanit, regardless of the chosen profession of their spouse. Yet this is a new development.

While rabbanit or rebbetzin is a traditional title, the term “admorit” is new. The title in its masculine form, admor, is an acronym for adoneinu, moreinu verabbeinu – our master, our teacher and our rabbi. The acronym was in use before the advent of hassidism. Over time it has come to be an honorific accorded to hassidic masters, and on occasion it has been translated as Grand Rabbi, in order to distinguish a rebbe from a rabbi.

The Hebrew acronym “admor” is treated like a word and can be pluralized, such that admorim refers to a number of hassidic masters. Using the term in the feminine Hebrew form, admorit, is a unique innovation.

WHO IS the Admorit of Belz? Rokach is a scioness of Vizhnitz Hassidism. She is married to Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokach (b. 1948), the leader of the Belz Hassidim since his appointment in 1966.

Over time, Surah has taken on various leadership roles, first within the Belz Hassidic community and then beyond. Her communal work focuses on providing assistance to widows and orphans, and she is active in raising funds for this purpose. She is known for not only organizing financial assistance for the needy, but also for adding a personal touch to her work by regularly calling people to inquire about their well-being.

From the perspective of hassidic leadership conventions, Surah conducts herself like a hassidic master. Being a hassidic master is not only dependent on how one perceives oneself; communal recognition is paramount. Indeed, a quip is told of a man who wakes his wife in the middle of the night and tells her that he just had a dream that he was a famous hassidic master with thousands of followers. Laconically, his wife responds: When thousands of followers have a dream that you are their hassidic master, then you can wake me in the middle of the night.

On this particular gauge – public perception – the Belzer Rebbetzin can be considered a hassidic master because she is recognized by many followers. Surah Rokach is sought after for her blessings, both by women and by men. Tales of her miracle-working capabilities are recounted by the hassidic faithful. It is not just members of the contemporary Belz hassidic community who see her as a spiritual titan; her blessings are requested by other hassidim as well, particularly Vizhnitz Hassidim.

Rabbanit Surah Rokach has set hours when she receives people who come to her for advice and blessings. These visitors may give Surah a kvitl (prayer note) – a sure sign of recognition of her status as a hassidic master. Surah receives the kvitlach and reads them – just like male rebbes.

It would, however, be inaccurate to suggest that the admorit plays the same role as the admor. While her sphere of leadership goes beyond the social conventions of contemporary hassidism, she does not fill most of the traditional male leadership roles.

Surah has been a regular traveler to communities outside Israel. She works hard to raise funds for the needy, and when she has visited primary-school-age children, she has spoken briefly and bestowed blessings on those in attendance. Any time she visits Belz institutions around the world, she is received as royalty.

Surah presents an iconic image. She covers her entire head with a distinctive type of head covering that is unadorned with pearls or precious stones. The hat fits tightly on her forehead and temples and blooms above her head, towering above her like a crown.

Certainly, Surah Rokach is a regal figure in hassidic society. Given her reputation and stature in the community, the Admorit of Belz is the most prominent woman in contemporary hassidism. ■

The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.