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EXCLUSIVE: Is The Orthodox Union Poised To Expel Synagogues With Female Clergy?

Half a year after the Orthodox Union banned women from serving as clergy at members’ synagogues, at least four of its congregations are continuing to flout the rule.

Now, advocates worry that the O.U.’s board could vote to expel those synagogues at its meeting next Wednesday, the first gathering of the board since it passed the ban.

UPDATE: The O.U. says the issue will not be discussed at the upcoming board meeting and no action will be taken until after Sukkot.

Less than a week before the meeting, board members have yet to receive a final agenda. That silence is breeding rumors, and worry. The debate over the O.U. policy on female clergy has drawn deep, emotional divisions within the movement in recent months.

“There’s been no clear line of communication from the Orthodox Union,” said one advocate, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Neither the O.U.’s executive director, Allen Fagin, nor the chair of its board, Mark Bane, responded to inquiries from the Forward on Thursday.

The O.U., the leading umbrella group for Modern Orthodox congregations in the United States, barred women from serving as clergy in its member congregations in February. At the time, the organization did not say what would happen to synagogues that bucked the directive.

The dispute over female clergy comes as the O.U. struggles with internal tensions over a growing left-leaning faction, led by Riverdale rabbi Avi Weiss. Weiss is co-founder of Yeshivat Maharat, a yeshiva that ordains female clergy and has trained all the women currently serving in clergy roles in O.U. congregations.

O.U. officials met over the summer with the four congregations that currently employ female clergy, according to the advocate. None of the four congregations appears to have backed down. And in early September, a fifth joined their ranks when Prospect Heights Shul in Brooklyn hired Michal Kohane to serve as interim spiritual leader.

Prominent O.U. lay leaders and rabbis have spoken out against the ban, including the vice chair of the O.U.’s board, Mordecai Katz, who circulated a letter to board members opposing the policy.

In February, five rabbis of O.U. congregations wrote a joint essay taking issue with the O.U. policy and arguing that the decision should be left to individual congregations.

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com or on Twitter, @joshnathankazis.

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