An Orthodox synagogue in the West Bank settlement of Efrat has appointed a woman to be the community’s sole spiritual leader, the first time that a woman has held such a position in an Israeli Orthodox community.
Rabbanit Shira Marili Mirvis was nominated with the support of 83 percent of the Shirat Hatamar synagogue’s voting members earlier this week, the synagogue announced in a statement Tuesday.
Though other women have served as spiritual leaders in Orthodox communities in Israel, in the past it was only alongside a man who was the community’s rabbi.
“Many times in my life I missed having a female Torah figure until the penny dropped that I can be that figure for other women,” Mirvis said in an interview with Army Radio on Thursday.
She related that a key moment was during the funeral of her father when a member of the burial society told her that she should not tear her clothes, as is the Jewish tradition, because it is immodest for women to do so.
Recalling the emotional turmoil she was under at the time, Mirvis said she tore her clothes anyway. It was at that moment that she realized that she wanted a woman to tell her what she should do in matters of religion, she said.
Mirvis admitted that there are “tensions” in her way of life — as a feminist woman in an Orthodox world that nonetheless will not recognize her as a rabbi or grant her the same rights as men — but that she feels she is choosing the way of life she wants.
She said that while abroad she was, for the first time, exposed to Reform communities where she saw women taking on roles and activities not accepted in the Orthodox world. The sights, she said, did lead her to question some of the limitations placed on women in Orthodoxy, but she stressed that while there are aspects that bother her, she is consciously choosing the framework she lives in and that is what matters most to her.
Mirvis said that her rise to lead the community in the Tamar neighborhood of Efrat, began in a spontaneous natural way with people asking her questions of Jewish religious law because they knew she was studying the subject. From there she began to also teach Talmud and give sermons in the synagogue.
For the past five years, Mirvis has been a student at the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership, a division of the Ohr Torah Stone institute, which runs a course for women in communal leadership and halacha, the body of religious thought prescribing Orthodox life.
According to the synagogue statement, the course aims to parallel the Israeli Rabbinate material studied by men in order to become rabbis.
A mother of six, Mirvis in recent years participated in a program by the Beit Hillel spiritual leadership organization in which she answered questions on halacha. She volunteers in the Efrat community to assist women during ritual mikveh immersion and is a member of the local burial society. She also in the past served as the head of a religious study center.
“We congratulate Rabbanit Shira on being elected to lead our community,” Shirat Hatamar said in the statement. “This is a clear recognition of her remarkable accomplishments as a teacher and communal leader and we are confident that she will continue to serve as a true role model.”
“The chance to witness Rabbanit Shira Mirvis take on this role represents an important moment as we recognize that the place of women in Jewish leadership can go fully hand in hand with halacha and our mesorah (tradition),” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, president and dean of Ohr Torah Stone. “I am deeply hopeful and confident that we will look back on this moment as one which paved a new halakhic direction for the rightful place of women spiritual leaders within the Orthodox community.”
“There is no doubt that this is a large step both for her, personally, but also for the place of female Torah leadership in Jewish communities in Israel and worldwide,” said WIHL director Rabbanit Devorah Evron.
The head of the Efrat municipal council Oded Revivi also praised her appointment saying it is “a natural and welcome process” and that other women will follow her lead.
The founding Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Shlomo Riskin, a leading figure in the Orthodox Zionist community, also gave his support to the development, the Kipa website reported.
The Masorti Movement in Israel also welcomed the news, with the Conservative Jewish stream posting on its Facebook page that “when you break the glass ceiling you do it for generations of women for whom spiritual leadership roles in the Jewish people are possible and worthy goals that they can aim for.”