More women are taking on positions as clergy in a tradition where women have never been clergy before, adopting a variety of titles. Some call themselves rosh kehilah, which means “head of the community.” Others go by maharat. Rabbanit. Rabba. And even rabbi.
In 2009, Rabbi Avi Weiss privately ordained Rabba Sara Hurwit, declaring her the first female Orthodox clergywoman. To train more women, he founded the school Yeshivat Maharat.
His school has ordained 21 women so far, and a handful of other women have been ordained privately, before and after. That may not seem like many especially when compared to the 1,000 Orthodox rabbis in the global Rabbinical Council of America (which refuses admission to women), but this small group of women is becoming more significant in Orthodox Jewish life. Women now lead synagogues in New York and in Massachusetts.
On Saturday, Rabbanit Hadas “Dasi” Fruchter, who has been an assistant clergy member on the staff of Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, Md. announced her move to Philadelphia to found her own Orthodox synagogue. She is opening the new congregation with a grant from a new nonprofit established to seed female-friendly Orthodox synagogues. This is a sign of the rapidly growing institutional support for women in Orthodox leadership.
“I am blessed and so excited to be able to do what I was made to do. It used to be not an option for me,” Fruchter said this week. When she was a teenager, she dreamed of marrying a rabbi, because she didn’t think she could ever be one. Now, in her office, she has two certificates of rabbinic ordination, hanging across from each other: her own, and her grandfather’s, from when he became an Orthodox rabbi in 1940.
The Orthodox movement is a small but significant denomination, representing about 10 percent of American Jews. The far larger and more liberal denominations have ordained women as clergy for decades.
Orthodoxy is divided into various movements with different levels of tolerance for female leadership, and these female clergy tend to belong to those such as Modern Orthodoxy and Open Orthodoxy.
The Orthodox Union, a major umbrella organization for U.S. synagogues, has taken a strong stance against female clergy. This year, in a densely footnoted 17-page argument, a committee of seven male rabbis concluded that women should not hold any clergy roles.
They gave numerous reasons, including the importance of adhering to tradition; a prohibition in the Talmud, the commentary on the Torah that elucidates Jewish law. It forbids a woman from being a kosher butcher, which the rabbis now believe should be extended to all religious authority. They also expressed concern for the modesty of a woman preaching to men.
The Orthodox Union did not respond to requests for comment on Friday; nor did any of the seven rabbis who wrote the opinion.
Judaism has no hierarchical leader, such as a pope or an archbishop, so despite the organization’s opinion, female-led synagogues are still springing up, and Orthodox Jews are in attendance.
Fruchter is now opening a shul in Philadelphia.
A 28-year-old Washington-area native, Fruchter said she chose Philadelphia because the local Orthodox community is growing. She is still searching for a location but plans to open her new synagogue in time for the fall holidays in 2019.
As she has started pitching the idea, prospective congregants have asked how she will lead services without breaking Orthodox prohibitions. She will give her sermon from the female side of the gender-divided sanctuary. She won’t count as one of the 10 participants necessary for a quorum for certain prayers. She won’t lead most prayers, though in Orthodox services, congregants, not rabbis, typically lead prayers anyway. (The rabbi’s primary roles — teaching, providing pastoral care and answering questions about the rigors of observing Jewish law — are all conceivably open to women, advocates say.)
“I assure them it’s going to be traditional, halachic: fully in line with Jewish law in terms of Modern Orthodox understanding,” Fruchter said.
Her synagogue is funded by Start-Up Shul, a new organization aiming to create gender-inclusive Orthodox synagogues. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, the leader of Washington’s Ohev Sholom and a co-founder of Start-Up Shul, said the organization will fund two synagogues this year with hopes of increasing that number to four or five new synagogues per year in the future.
“We want to support entrepreneurial rabbis — maharats, rabbanits, whatever they call themselves — who are going to create a synagogue supportive of women in leadership positions in the clergy. . . . This will inspire more women and more men who are believers in this type of Orthodoxy to go into the rabbinate,” Herzfeld said.
While synagogues like Fruchter’s might not be permitted in the Orthodox Union — the organization questioned, but decided not to sanction, Herzfeld’s synagogue and several others that already employed female clergy before the organization’s opinion against it this year — Herzfeld believes most Orthodox Jews don’t care.
“Without question, most Orthodox Jews are absolutely ready. Her synagogue is going to be bursting through the roof within five years,” he predicted. “She’s such a talent. People are going to be coming from all over Philadelphia, just to be taught by her.”
Rosh Kehilah Dina Najman said that when she became the spiritual leader of New York’s Kehilat Orach Eliezer, people asked members of her synagogue if they were willing to attend a shul with a female leader. Once skeptics attended a service, they were often persuaded.
“When I initially did some weddings, people said, ‘What is going on here?’ When people saw, ‘Hey, this is halachic,’ they had to see it for themselves. . . . They saw this is a halachic service. ‘So she speaks. So she gives advice. So she gives the leadership. Now I understand. This is something that doesn’t hurt my sensibilities,’” said Najman. Najman, who leads the Kehilah in Riverdale, says the number of male Orthodox rabbis who accept her as a peer has gone from a “handful” to “hundreds.”
“Time is a big deal. I think change takes time,” says Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, a leading Orthodox feminist. “The more that you meet these women, you hear their Torah, you see them responding to crisis and simply being there, you realize what we could be losing out on.”
She described female Orthodox clergy who ministered to victims’ families in Las Vegas after the mass shooting there and who joined in Black Lives Matter marches. Weiss-Greenberg said young children will grow up knowing only this model of Orthodox Judaism. “That’s exciting. In general, the notion of all this being normalized is extremely heartening,” she said. “I did not think the landscape would be what it is today, 20 years ago.”