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Liberal Orthodox Rabbis Seeking Pulpits Struggle With Stigma Against Seminary

Rabbi Joel Dinin is a no-nonsense Orthodox rabbi — and he looks the part. He sports a black kippah and doesn’t tuck in his tzitzit, the ritual tassels of the prayer shawl he wears as an undershirt. After Saturday morning services he asks that his congregants wash their hands and say the proper blessings, as he has, before he personally gives them some challah and wishes them a “good Shabbos.” Nevertheless, Dinin chose to attend a liberal Orthodox rabbinical school — Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, commonly referred to as Chovevei.

When he applied for jobs in the pulpit last year, he liked his chances. He is finishing a three-year fellowship at a prestigious Baltimore synagogue with over 500 congregants, and has won the respect of hard-line Orthodox rabbis in the area. After callbacks from five synagogues, Dinin visited two for a trial weekend. One offered him a job. The other rejected him for one simple reason.

“‘You did great. But you lost it because of Chovevei,’” Dinin recalls being told.

Dinin chose Chovevei because he liked that it helped students master Jewish law and taught them how to apply it to 21st century problems. But many in the Orthodox world associate YCT with the issue of female clergy, which is a bridge too far for many nationally known, traditional rabbis. Some communities don’t want the stigma that could come with crossing those rabbis, and avoid its alumni altogether. And while Chovevei is finding acceptance in more and more communities, the synagogues that have hired Chovevei graduates so far have typically only done so only after making a conscious, collective decision that they’re open to a liberal candidate.

“I go into these shuls where I know that Chovevei would be so perfect to make this community successful,” Dinin said. “And they’re uncomfortable with it because they don’t want to be the odd man out.”

Nearly all Chovevei graduates consider themselves Modern Orthodox, part of the segment of Judaism that embraces both traditional Jewish observance and secular culture. Unlike the Hasidic community, Modern Orthodox Jews don’t adhere to dress codes. They also overwhelmingly support educating women at the same institutions and intellectual level as men, according to a report by the Jewish survey firm Nishma Research. According to estimates from the Pew Research Center, there are about 160,000 Modern Orthodox Jews in the United States, compared with over 300,000 Orthodox Jews who to varying degrees limit their participation in secular life.

Most Orthodox synagogues seek out and hire graduates of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, also known as RIETS. That seminary produces about 50 rabbis every year, according to Rabbi Ronald Schwarzberg, director of placement at RIETS. Chovevei’s classes typically number between six and 10. Rabbis from RIETS tend to favor stricter interpretations of halacha, or Jewish law. Both schools only admit male students.

RIETS has been ordaining rabbis for nearly 115 years; Chovevei, which was founded in 1999 by Rabbi Avi Weiss, ordained its first class in 2004. The school is part of what Weiss has called the Open Orthodoxy movement, which he said is about “expressing vibrancy, inclusivity and non-judgmentalism.” Weiss drew criticism from Orthodox rabbis at the time for contending that halacha should be interpreted with more flexibility in the modern world, especially as regards the role of women in Orthodox Judaism.

Every year the latest crop of rabbis newly minted by Chovevei, RIETS, smaller seminaries and individual rabbis giving private ordination vie for positions at Orthodox synagogues across the country. Not all want to work in synagogues; some seek jobs as educators or chaplains, or go to work in the private sector. Rabbis who seek the pulpit mostly look for roles as associate or assistant rabbis, hoping to be mentored by a senior rabbi, while a few become the sole leader at small congregations.

Chovevei currently has about 100 graduates in the field, a third of whom serve in Orthodox pulpits, according to Ruthie Strossberg Simon, the head of placement at Chovevei. They have been given positions at influential Orthodox synagogues like Kehilath Jeshurun on New York’s Upper East Side, or Beth Tfiloh in Baltimore, the largest Modern Orthodox synagogue in the country. Chovevei says all of its graduates who want to a pulpit job do get one in the end. But Chovevei rabbis told the Forward the process is sometimes complicated by the gap that exists between some traditional synagogues and the seminary’s liberal ethos.

Simon said that in many cases, the synagogues are disregarding Chovevei alumni not because of their opinions on halacha, but for “political reasons.” Some communities don’t want to be seen as going against the wishes of leading Orthodox thinkers and institutions. The Rabbinical Council of America, an organization of 1,000 Orthodox rabbis, does not admit Chovevei graduates. Rabbi Hershel Schachter, the head of the RIETS seminary, has compared Open Orthodoxy to early Christianity. Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel, excoriated the school in a 2013 blog post for graduating a rabbi who does not believe that God wrote the Torah.

“We’re training women to be rabbis”

The issue Chovevei is most famous for, however, is female clergy. In 2009 Sara Hurwitz became the first woman publicly ordained as an Orthodox faith leader. Weiss presided over her ordination. Hurwitz now carries the title of Rabba, the feminine form of “rabbi,” and is the president of Chovevei’s sister seminary for women, Yeshivat Maharat. Graduates are given the title of maharat, an acronym that means “female leader of custom, spirituality and Torah.” At the time Weiss was clear about what the term actually signified. “We’re training women to be rabbis,” Weiss told the Forward ahead of Hurwitz’s ordination. “What they will be called is something we’re working out.” Since then, Yeshivat Maharat has ordained 19 women.

Yeshivat Maharat and Chovevei are separate schools, but share a building and faculty members. Women in the maharat program do not learn in the men’s yeshiva, though there are a few classes not solely focused on text study where students at both schools learn together. Rabbi Asher Lopatin, the current head of Chovevei who is leaving at the end of this year, has said that “it’s a loss for men and women to be segregated.”

In an email, Hurwitz didn’t directly answer a question from the Forward about how much support there is for female clergy among Chovevei graduates. She said that graduates of the seminary are working in 12 Orthodox institutions, and that they have received 20 calls in the previous five months from synagogues asking about hiring Yeshivat Maharat graduates.

Weiss’ frankness about Hurwitz’s ordination was met with applause from liberal Jewish movements and derision from much of the Orthodox world. High-profile rabbis in the New York area and outside Baltimore have voiced full-throated opposition to the prospect of female clergy. The Orthodox Union, the rabbinic body that makes rulings on Jewish law, has threatened to ban synagogues that hire female clergy. Many synagogues feel that hiring Chovevei rabbis would mean being marked as too liberal. When you type “Yeshivat Chovevei Torah” into Google, the first suggestion that pops up is “is it orthodox.”

“To have your institution represented by a Chovevei grad is to make a stand on certain halachic issues. And that may be a public relations issue,” said Joshua Olshin, president of the board at West Side Institutional Synagogue in Manhattan, which hired rabbis from Yeshiva University in its last two rabbinic search processes. Olshin said the synagogue would be open to hiring a Chovevei alum.

The widespread condemnation of the maharat program has convinced many that the school is more liberal than Orthodox, and that its graduates do not receive proper classical training. Alumni say they get tired of being preceded into their pulpit positions by what they feel is a false reputation, and that it is a sore subject within the school.

“Chovevei really likes to control that messaging,” said one alumni. “They’re very sensitive, since they get beat up so much.”

“That has been very damaging to guys finding jobs,” Dinin said of Chovevei’s stance of female clergy. “I know for a fact that it’s gotten harder for some of my colleagues because of that.”

Rabbi Garth Silberstein, a 2016 Chovevei graduate who now serves at an Orthodox synagogue in Sacramento, said that during his selection process the political tension over his ordination was palpable. Silberstein said that a few years earlier, when hiring a previous rabbi, the shul had seen serious political infighting in response to the possibility of bringing in a Chovevei grad.

“It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that they were gonna hire someone from Chovevei this time around,” he said. “They made it clear that they weren’t looking for a firebrand bearing the torch of Open Orthodoxy — which I am very much not.”

After Silberstein got the job, he said his predecessor was “quite candid” with him about the political spectrum in the community. Still, Silberstein said he regularly hears from congregants that his traditional approach to the rabbinate has changed their convictions about his alma mater.

”What was I afraid of?

Ultimately many Chovevei graduates report satisfaction with the synagogues they are placed with, and vice versa. Rabbi Aviad Bodner, a Chovevei graduate who serves at a synagogue in New York City, said that the school does not see a high number of failed shidduchs, or matches, because progressive rabbis self-select for progressive synagogues.

“It’s kind of like the chicken and the egg,” he said. “[Chovevei graduates] are not gonna apply for positions at shuls where there’s no chance where you could get a job, the same way you don’t want to work at a shul that is not aligned with your values.”

It is becoming somewhat easier for progressive rabbis to find such synagogues. In September 2017, Nishma Research found that nearly 40 percent Modern Orthodox Jews were in favor of giving women positions of “rabbinic authority.” In January, the Forward reported that the Orthodox Union has not enforced its promised ban on synagogues that employ female clergy, largely in response to a backlash from Modern Orthodox rabbis.

Elanit Jakabovics, president of Kesher Israel in Georgetown, said that support for female clergy is not the deal-breaker it once was. Kesher Israel is traditionally Orthodox, and was founded in 1911. When the synagogue began a search for a new rabbi last year, an in-house survey found that the community was in general open to hiring a Chovevei graduate.

“Because Chovevei has only been around for 10 to 15 years, it’s easier to look at the student body and their graduates and try to make sweeping generalizations about what Chovevei stands for,” Jakabovics said.

There are also Chovevei grads who have stood up for Orthodox values in more liberal settings. Rabbi Ben Greenberg, a 2009 alum, resigned as rabbi of a Denver synagogue over its refusal to establish a mechitza, a separation between men and women, in its main sanctuary.

Simon, Chovevei’s head of placement, estimated that half of Chovevei graduates work in Orthodox synagogues and schools, while the other half work in more pluralistic settings.

“We want that balance,” she said. “That’s our strength.”

Joel Dinin, of Baltimore, feels that overall, Chovevei graduates are much more observant and classically trained than the school’s detractors make them out to be. Dinin said that congregants frequently tell him and other Chovevei graduates how pleasantly surprised they are by their traditional approach to the rabbinate.

“When they meet us, they’re like, ‘What was I afraid of?’” he said.

Update, 5/6/2018, 9:15 a.m.: Language in this article about the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah’s support of female clergy has been changed.

Correction, 5/6/2018, 12:50 p.m.: A previous version of this article stated that Yeshivat Chovevei Torah ordained Rabba Sara Hurwitz. Her ordination was overseen by Rabbi Avi Weiss.

Contact Ari Feldman at [email protected] or on Twitter @aefeldman

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