NEW YORK — Looking back it seems inevitable that she would someday have a pulpit to call her own.
“When I was a kid, about six or seven, I would stand at the door of my father’s synagogue and hand out the siddurs [prayer books] and tell people what page we were on. People would say ‘Oh, what a cute rebbetzin you are.’ They never told me the rebbetzin was the rabbi’s wife,” Michal Kohane said.
The thing was, she didn’t want to be the rabbi’s wife. She wanted to be clergy, to help lead a synagogue of her own. And now, as the newly named rosh kehila, or “head of community,” at Prospect Heights Shul, she has a chance to do just that.
The five-year-old progressive Modern Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn hired Kohane last July. The 56-year-old will serve as a “teacher and spiritual guide.”
One of a handful of female community heads — there are only four others in the United States — Kohane’s appointment also signifies a shift, albeit a slow one, in some segments of the Orthodox community toward accepting women in certain leadership roles.
Like other the other female leaders, Kohane attends Yeshivat Maharat, a liberal Orthodox seminary for women in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. It is the first and only institution in the nation to ordain Orthodox women as clergy. The four-year program includes a rigorous curriculum of Talmud and halahic decision-making. Students learn to be poskot, legal arbiters within boundaries of Halacha.
At Prospect Heights, Kohane performs many of the same things a synagogue rabbi does. She will teach, deliver sermons from the bima (dais), and occasionally conduct women-only services where women read from the Torah.
I hope it’s the content of what I say that matters, not my gender
However, because Kohane is still in training (she’s on track to complete her studies in 2020) she is not yet a posek, meaning she doesn’t yet have the authority to rule on matters of Jewish law. Even when she does complete her studies, she will not read from the Torah during services as that might offend the sensibilities of some in the congregation.
And that’s fine by Kohane.
“I don’t feel like a feisty feminist. I don’t feel inherently disrespected. We eat together; we study together. I’m okay with that,” Kohane said over coffee and chai latte at a corner Starbucks in Riverdale.
“Being a woman is not the only thing that defines me just like my Israeliness is not the only thing that defines me. I hope it’s the content of what I say that matters, not my gender,” she said.
Kohane was born and raised in Haifa, Israel. Her father was a founding member of Moria, a Conservative synagogue. While growing up she spent a lot of time in that synagogue as well as Or Chadash, a Reform synagogue in Haifa where she participated in the youth group.
She said spending so much time in both Conservative and Reform domains gave her the ability to consider other perspectives, to walk into different worlds and feel comfortable.
As she got older, the more she studied, the more she felt drawn to the Modern Orthodox movement. There are about 220,000 Modern Orthodox adults in the US nationwide according to 2013 Pew Research Study.
It’s like a love story. It’s not all rational
“It’s like a love story. It’s not all rational. For me it’s the structure and the flexibility. I like that my Yiddishkeit, my Judaism, touches every aspect of my life. This is a way of life for me that I don’t just do on Shabbat. You live with it all the time,” she said.
Kohane came to New York City in the summer of 2016. Before that, she was a leader in the Jewish community in Northern California, where she worked for a local federation serving as acting rabbi and educator.
In 2013, she was fired as director of San Francisco Federation Israel Center for writing an essay criticizing the American Jewish community for placing too much emphasis on youth engagement at the expense of keeping older adults engaged.
With her forward-looking attitude, Kohane took it as a sign to begin anew. Divorced and with her six children grown and out of the house, she moved east and enrolled at Yeshivat Maharat.
On track to graduate in 2020, she is also pursuing a doctorate in organizational psychology. As part of an internship at a maximum-security prison in upstate New York, she counseled Jewish prisoners monthly.
Then last spring she learned Prospect Heights Shul was looking to hire a part-time leader. The small synagogue wasn’t specifically looking for a woman, but it sent the job posting to Yeshiva Maharat.
At first some in the synagogue, which doesn’t belong to the Orthodox Union, were a bit wary about hiring a woman. Their concerns quickly gave way.
In a news release, senior rabbi Ysoscher Katz said Kohane “has all the essential qualities necessary for successful spiritual leadership: she combines knowledge of Torah, passion for Yiddishkeit, and extreme sensitivity to others.”
Though still very controversial, within the Modern Orthodox movement attitudes are changing, according to a September Nishma Research profile of American Modern Orthodox Jews.
Of the 3,903 respondents, 53 percent of respondents thought women should have expanded roles in synagogue, but only 38% said they support women holding the title of rabbinic authority, according to the survey.
However, there was widespread support for women in other leadership positions. Of the respondents, 74% approved of women serving as synagogue presidents. Less than .5 % opposed women learning Torah on an equal intellectual level as men, 80% supported co-ed classes, and 65% said it was all right for women to deliver sermons from the bima.
Yet, while those in the Modern Orthodox movement might be more accepting, the Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of America remain steadfastly opposed to women serving as clergy.
The train of women in leadership and clergy has left the station
“Part of me understands the OU position. At the same time, that train of women in leadership and clergy has left the station. What exactly our role will look like, we don’t yet know. But we need a dialogue so as not to become so fractured,” said Kohane.
“The synagogue has replaced the home as the center for Jewish life in modern times. So this is not just a women’s issue, it’s a societal issue. Women in Orthodoxy are learned, they have things to say, and they will be heard,” she said.
That said, Kohane is sensitive the fact that being rosh kehila at a Modern Orthodox shul means literally taking someone by the hand – even if that someone is a child.
Kohane told a story about a recent morning service when it was just she and 10 men in the sanctuary. One of the men had his young child with him. At one point the toddler got restless. The father stood up to leave.
Kohane, who saw what was happening over the mechitza (partition between women and men’s sections), got to the door first. She told him he couldn’t leave because if he did there wouldn’t be a minyan. Though Kohane is rosh kehila, she doesn’t count as part of the minyan. And so she took the child outside.
“When I told the story at yeshiva some of the women said ‘Of course, we’re always the babysitters.’ But I said it’s not my role to be a bra-burning feminist,” said Kohane. “You don’t want to be a babysitter, but you also must be willing to do what is needed to make the minyan happen. It’s about the community. That is part of being a leader in a Modern Orthodox community.”