Sunday’s inaugural graduation at Yeshivat Maharat was no ordinary cap and gown ceremony. Rather, it was history in the making for Orthodox women.
As Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Rachel Kohl Finegold and Abby Brown Scheier prepared to become the first women to hold the title maharat in the Jewish community, faculty members of the school and nearly 500 guests at the event, stressed that the historic nature of the June 16 event could not be understated.
Though the graduates are not the first women to take up positions as religious leaders within the Orthodox tradition, they mark the beginning of an institutionalized role for women who want to take their place as guides in their communities.
The enthusiasm in the room on the Upper East Side of Manhattan was palpable as the leadership of Yeshivat Maharat rose to praise the graduates. Rabbi Jeffrey S. Fox, rosh yeshiva or the head of the school which is based in the Bronx, compared the reactions within the wider Orthodox community to the uproar at the opening concert of the “Rite of Spring” ballet in Paris in 1913. “Fistfights erupted and people were escorted out of the theater,” he said.
But with hindsight, he explained, Igor Stravinsky’s innovation came to be appreciated and admired. So, he added, will it be with Orthodox women in clergy positions.
“It is not often we are blessed to appreciate that we are witnessing history,” he concluded. “The time has come.”
Despite the sense that this moment was long in coming, the graduates were quick to thank those who had come before them. “This moment in history was going to happen with or without me,” Kohl Finegold told the attendees in her graduate address. “I stand on the shoulders of those women who first cracked open a gemara.”
In a video made to explain the graduates’ path towards this moment, Brown Scheier explained that is important for women to be able to lead. As the wife of a congregational rabbi, she found herself as “kind of a first lady,” for her community, she said. “I wanted to make sure that when people come to me with questions, I could answer them, and not just say ‘Oh, go ask my husband.’”
Addressing the crowd, Rabbi Avi Weiss, whose ordination of Sara Hurwitz, dean of Yeshivat Maharat, as rabba in 2009 made this graduation possible, was overwhelmed. “It’s not always that dreams are fulfilled in our lifetime, but here we are,” he said. In his speech, Weiss noted the need for women’s presence in Orthodox leadership positions, noting the constant demand from synagogues, Hillels, and other organizations as proof. All three graduates, he stressed, have secured jobs.
“This is a moment of kiddusha, a moment of real holiness,” Weiss added, asking the audience to participate in a blessing of the graduates. The sheer volume of the chanting was a testament to how eager people were to help celebrate this event.