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Pioneering Orthodox Women Clergy Speak Out

“We’re not ready,” said Gloria Steinem to Rosh Kehilla Dina Najman, the spiritual leader of Congregation Kehilat Orach Eliezer (KOE), when she encountered her on a plane last April, in the heat of the Democratic primaries. Steinem was talking about Americans not being ready for a female president, but Najman brought up the anecdote during the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance’s panel discussion at the JCC Manhattan last week to make the point that, similarly, Orthodox Jewish society is not ready for more women to be in congregational leadership positions like hers.

The panel, titled “Beyond the Glass Ceiling: New Orthodox Leadership Roles For Women,” featured three women currently serving in leadership roles at Orthodox congregations. Joining Najman were Mahara”t Sara Hurwitz of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and Assistant Congregational Leader Lynn Kaye of Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, who shared their often frank answers to questions posed by Dr. Idana Goldberg and audience members.

The running theme of the questions that evening was whether these women feel their positions are gendered: Were these positions created specifically for a woman? Do they feel they are treated differently by congregants because they are women? Are there particular challenges to the role because of their gender?

The extent to which panelists answers to these questions differed was interesting. Najman and Kaye both stressed, more than Hurwitz, that their gender did not play a part in their being chosen for their positions and, mostly, that it does not impact the way they interact with their congregations.

“I couldn’t be someone’s token woman rabbi,” said Najman, who functions not as an assistant but as the main rabbinic figure in her congregation. She only accepted the position after being satisfied it would be gender-neutral, she said. In Najman’s case, having already carved a niche for herself in the Jewish world as a respected scholar, particularly in the field of bioethics and halacha, and having garnered rabbinic sanction to pasken halacha [make decisions on Jewish law], KOE actually called her to offer her a chance to fill the position. The congregation, which is not formally affiliated with any particular denomination of Judaism but functions as a modern Orthodox institution, had been looking for a new rabbi and was not connecting with the candidates sent to them from Yeshiva University and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, so they decided to think outside the box, Najman said. When it came to choosing her title (she is not called rabbi, nor are the other panelists), Najman said she wanted it to be gender neutral: Rosh Kehillah, or head of congregation, takes the same Hebrew form if applied to a woman or man.

Kaye said she feels her job is “more about personality” than it is about gender, and that congregants relate to her as “a person” more than as a woman. Her position at Shearith Israel was created as a gender-neutral alternative to an assistant rabbi and was open to either a woman or a man. Kaye, who has done a lot of Jewish learning and is working on a Ph.D in Talmud, has not completed the same formal “rabbinic” studies that Hurwitz and Najman have, and thus does not have the ability to pasken, but functions in other ways as any assistant rabbi would, providing pastoral, educational and organizational services to the synagogue.

Hurwitz, whose very public ascent to the position of Mahara”t at HIR has gotten her the most media attention of the three in recent months, has had a somewhat different experience. She began at HIR as a congregational intern, a position that was created specifically for a woman, and, she said, her position evolved as she did. Now, having been conferred with the title Mahara”t, created as a female alternative to rabbi but meant to convey the same position, Hurwitz said of her role, “I function as a rabbi,” but noted, “it took me about six years to feel comfortable saying that.”

Speaking frankly, Hurwitz acknowledged that some of her congregants don’t feel comfortable coming to her with issues because of her gender, though others feel more comfortable because she is a woman. Acknowledging the limitations imposed on her role because of her gender, she spoke of the “pain” of not being able to count for a minyan when there are only nine men and her at morning services, and the almost-comical discomfort she feels when she ascends the bima and all the men flee (the congregation has a policy that men and women not stand on the bima at the same time).

But some challenges these women face are of a more logistical than emotional nature. While the traditional rabbi comes with a rebbetzin who holds down the homefront while the rabbi deals with synagogue matters, these working women have working husbands, and, in Najman and Hurwitz’s cases, children to care for, as well.

For Kaye, whose husband, Rabbi Alexander Kaye, is the rabbinic assistant at Kehilath Jeshurun on the Upper East Side, being a two-clergymember household presents difficulties when it comes to hosting Shabbat guests, a traditional staple of rabbinic life. If both have to be at services on time and stay till the very end of the kiddush, she said, “When do you put the salads together?”

“We need a spouse,” Kaye said she often jokes with her husband. On a similar note, Hurwitz said, her mother often urges her to “hire a rebbetzin.”

But this experience is no different, Najman said, then if she were a doctor or lawyer or other busy professional. When both spouses work full time, the household and parenting duties need to be shared.

All of the panelists mentioned the support they have gotten from their husbands in pursuing congregational work.

And then there was the much-discussed and fretted-over question of title. None of the women currently serving in Orthodox congregational leadership roles carry the title of rabbi, though both Hurwitz and Najman have completed the requisite studies and examinations that would render men eligible for that title. All of the panelists agreed that the job they perform is more important than what they’re called, and that the important thing is opening up pathways so that the best people, women or men, can serve their communities.

And yet, they pretty much agreed that rabbi is the appropriate title for a woman who has completed the same studies and examinations as men who are bestowed with that title.

Najman was the most adamant that having the same title across the board for women in Orthodox clergy is critical, and that the best title is rabbi. Interestingly, there was a surprisingly tepid smattering of applause at this pronouncement, which may have been due to the audience’s overall uncertainty if it was okay to clap, or if it was okay to clap at that particular statement, or because they just didn’t agree. Najman said that when dealing with the world outside of the Orthodox community — hospitals, funeral homes, etc. — she refers to herself as rabbi because it’s easier than explaining the meaning and significance of “rosh kehilla.”

Kaye took a more conservative line on the question of title, stopping short of endorsing “rabbi” as the best title for women in Orthodox ritual leadership. Fairness, she said, would require people who put in the same work and pass the same tests to have the same title, but, in practice, she allowed, a title should come from the particular community, according to what is comfortable and customary for them. Noting a gender-neutral example from her own congregation, she mentioned that, until the previous rabbi, the clergymen of Shearith Israel held the title of Minister, rather than rabbi.

Hurwitz, who has gotten the most flack about her own title, from both the right (for breaking established gender-norms) and from the left (for not going far enough), agreed with Najman that rabbi is the best title, but allowed that avoiding that title, and the political friction that would likely come with it, might actually make it easier to do the job. She noted that the fallout from her conferral ceremony was not as bad as it might have been if she had been called “rabbi.”

But, Hurwitz said, having some kind of title is important because it establishes a more formal level of respect, which, in her case, has made congregants more receptive to her authority and ability as a member of the clergy.

In conclusion, the panelists expressed their hopes that more communities would open themselves to the possibility of employing women as congregational leaders. Hurwitz spoke of the need for a group devoted to helping learned Orthodox women find jobs in religious leadership, be it in congregations, college campuses, JCCs or other Jewish organizations. Najman mentioned the need for education of both women and men to combat the prevalent fear of women in Orthodox leadership positions.

But though these “rabbinic” roles for Orthodox women may currently be mostly confined to small sections of New York and Jerusalem, don’t think the rest of the world isn’t taking notice. That encounter Najman had with Gloria Steinem on the plane? Imagine Najman’s surprise when she introduced herself to Steinem, the woman she credits with making the world a more gender-equitable place, and Steinem replied, “Oh, I’ve heard of you.”

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