NEW YORK — Five floors above the bustling streets of New York City’s Upper West Side, a dozen 20- to 30-year-old women pore over a page of Talmud. The noise level is high, the atmosphere exhilarating in this Beit Midrash, where the students of Yeshivat Maharat, Orthodoxy’s first institution training women as spiritual and religious leaders, gather.
Come June, Maharat’s first graduating class of three will finish the yeshiva’s four-year intensive study program. The three plan to break into what was once a men’s-only world and become religious leaders in synagogues across North America. One student, Rachel Kohl Finegold, has already been hired at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal.
“The time has come for men and women to work in synagogues through a partnership,” said Rabba Sara Hurwitz, Maharat’s dean, who also works on the rabbinical staff of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR). “People are thirsting for a new type of leadership, and what the future is evolving into is bringing women as spiritual leaders and halachic decisors.”
Maharat was founded in 2009 by Hurwitz, who made a name for herself with her groundbreaking and controversial ordination by HIR’s Rabbi Avi Weiss. She was ordained under the title “rabba,” the feminine declension of the Hebrew “rabbi.”
Hurwitz started the school to pave the way for other women to become spiritual leaders, but this time, the students will be given the title “maharat,” which stands for “manhiga hilchatit ruchanit toranit” or halachic/spiritual leader.
What started as a small group of four women has grown to some 15 students. The school rents space from the Drisha Institute, a well-established Jewish educational center in New York City where many of Maharat’s students first started studying.
The program consists of general Torah and law study, as well as pastoral and chaplain training and other skills one would need to run a synagogue, such as speech writing. The school is training its students to hold rabbinic positions, where they will fulfill traditional duties. Except, of course, those which fall outside of halachic religious acceptance for women: serving as a witness, being counted in a minyan, and leading prayers.
And while the idea of a synagogue having a female religious leader might be out of the question for a more traditional institution, Maharat’s three upcoming graduates have a plethora of synagogues opening their arms to them.
“We’ve traveled all across the US, from St. Louis to Chicago, to LA to Florida, to Baltimore, and communities are so optimistic we are going to be part of the synagogues’ future,” Hurwitz said.
Finegold is the first of the three graduates to get hired: Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal announced last week it has created a new position for her on its pastoral staff.
Finegold has for the past six years worked at Chicago’s Anshei Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation, where she’s been giving classes, speeches, and religious advice. She’s excited about her new position in Montreal, where she will interact with some 1,500 households.
“The model men have created in the Orthodox rabbinate is that the rabbi is available at all times, always at shul and always at davening. I think Orthodox women in leadership roles will shift that model,” Finegold said. “It’ll create a different set of expectations, which can be refreshing for some in the community. The fact that I’m not counted in the minyan just means… I’ll still be there to fulfill other duties.”
Finegold describes her family as a “typical Orthodox family,” one that wouldn’t necessarily seem to be part of such a revolution, but she said they support her decisions, nonetheless.
Finegold’s new workplace is run by Rabbi Adam Scheier, whose wife, Abby Brown Scheier, is also a 2013 Maharat graduate. Like Finegold, Scheier has been participating in Maharat via streaming classes online, with frequent visits to its New York headquarters. But unlike Finegold, Scheier is not looking for a pulpit job but rather to teach and give religious counseling.
“One pulpit rabbi in the family is enough,” Scheier, a mother of four, says, laughing. “From the beginning of joining Maharat, I knew I wanted to do something more creative, like teaching. I’m looking forward to working with Canada’s population, doing things like conversions and teaching bat mitzva students.”
Maharat’s third 2013 graduate, Ruth Balinksy Friedman, currently lives in New York City and is present at Maharat’s Beit Midrash every day. She said she’s been offered several rabbinic staff positions from synagogues around the country and will choose one in the next few weeks.
Friedman’s father is an Orthodox rabbi who is currently the executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, and she said she never imagined growing up she’d be able to have a career in spiritual leadership. But after deciding to join Maharat once she finished a Drisha program, her family demonstrated immense support and her father even joined Maharat’s board.
“It’s important to realize that as Maharat students, we all identify as Orthodox,” Friedman said, in between her class sessions. “I think people believe we are a foreign concept, which we are. We have a new title because nothing like this exists in the Orthodox community. But we’re also perfectly normal, traditionally practicing women who have a love for Jewish tradition,” says Friedman.
Friedman believes it’s important to incorporate female roles in the Orthodox community, especially in a place like the synagogue, the arguable center of religious life. She says she didn’t grow up having any religious female role models, simply because there were no female roles at synagogues.
When it comes to specific topics, such as laws of family purity and fertility issues, Friedman believes speaking to a woman for religious guidance is actually preferred, and she’s anticipating bringing new options to a younger generation.
“The reason why Maharat needs to exist is because unfortunately, we are not capitalizing on the talent of half our population by only giving men the spiritual roles in the religious community,” Friedman says.
“We raise our kids with the encouragement that they can be anything they want to be, but [for women] that did not use to include being a spiritual leader in the Orthodox world,” Scheier adds. “Finding a place for women in the synagogue will create more opportunity for women, and keep them closer to their spiritual roots.”
Of course, Maharat will still face opposition, and not every synagogue in the country will jump to hire its students. The graduates agree it will take time before their new roles are universally embraced, but they are optimistic change is already under way.
“A maharat isn’t for everyone, and it’s most certainly not for every shul,” Friedman says. “The goal is not for us to work in communities where we are not welcome. We don’t want to get in the faces of folks who are not comfortable with it, but Orthodoxy is changing at a rapid pace when it comes to a view on women and ideas are always changing and transforming.”
Finegold’s ambition is to show the Jewish world just how dedicated Maharat’s students will be.
“I’m not doing this to make a statement; that’s not what drives me,” she said. “I’m not trying to rock the boat. It’s simply about what I can offer, as a woman, to the Jewish people.”