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The first woman rabba will not be the last

Rabba Sara Hurwitz speaks to Simon Rocker ahead of her visit to Britain this month

    Rabba Sara Hurwitz, dean of the American college that ordains Orthodox women clergy
    Rabba Sara Hurwitz, dean of the American college that ordains Orthodox women clergy

    In name, Rabba Sara Hurwitz is one of a kind. Six years ago she was the first woman to be openly ordained as a member of the Orthodox ministry. But she is not alone. Other women have followed along the trail she blazed, even if they do not carry the title "rabba".

    On Sunday, Yeshivat Maharat in New York - the institution of which she is dean - will ordain six more women, more than doubling the number of its graduates to 11. They will be known as "maharat", which sounds like some kind of Indian aristocrat but stands for manhigah hilchanit ruchanit Toranit, leader in halachah, spirituality and Torah.

    When the yeshivah opened six years ago, it had three students. In its short history, it has opened its door to 32, among them Dina Brawer, the former rebbetzin of Northwood United Synagogue, who joined as its first recruit from Britain last year.

    "Up until that, there was no formal trajectory for Orthodox women to follow towards a career in spiritual leadership," said Rabba Hurwitz, who will be visiting London to speak at the annual conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance UK on Sunday June 28.

    "There are wonderful women who carved out their own roles. What we decided to do was to create a formal pathway to help women become ordained. We were committed not only to training them but also to placing them in Orthodox synagogues."

    'They couldn’t imagine their community without a woman serving with the Rabbi'

    Yeshivat Maharat has put interns or graduates into 17 Orthodox synagogues and 15 communal organisations - evidence, she says, of "the warm and enthusiastic embrace by the Jewish community. I think people are waking up to realising the necessity of having men and women serve in partnership with one another. Women and men congregants need to look to role models in both genders."

    The 37-year-old mother of three is South African in origin, a background that may have influenced her concern for equality. She moved with her family to Florida when she was 13. It was the tests she took before university to identify career options which suggested her skills might suit the clergy - not the most obvious choice for an Orthodox woman.

    In 2003, she became an intern at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, the congregation led by the prominent modern Orthodox rabbi, Avi Weiss. A handful of Orthodox women may have previously been ordained by rabbis, but privately so. She was inducted into the clergy by Rabbi Weiss in a public ceremony - initially as the world's first maharat.

    Having opened Yeshivat Maharat later that year to train others, in 2010 Rabbi Weiss changed her title to that of "rabba", the female equivalent of rabbi. ("Rabbanit" means a rebbetzin.)

    "When we were thinking of titles, we held focus groups to assess what the most appropriate title would be and what would be acceptable," she explained. "It was interesting to note that many of the people wanted the title to be one that would help others understand who I was and what I was doing."

    The new title immediately caused uproar. To appease the Rabbinical Council of America, the main central Orthodox body in the United States, Rabbi Weiss said that he would not bestow the name of rabba on future graduates of his new college.

    Whatever the maharats are called, the name is less important than the content of the four-year course, where women study not only Talmud and Jewish law but do pastoral training.

    "Our institution doesn't give out titles," Rabbi Hurwitz said. "We focus on semichah, ordination."

    Apart from her college role, she continues to serve as one of the clerical team at Riverdale. She counsels congregants, organises educational programmes and also gives sermons on Shabbat morning.

    "It wasn't until I received semichah in 2009 that I was really able to be seen as a full member of the clergy," she said. "And so my ability to touch people, to inspire people, be present for them at their most vulnerable and their happiest moments, really increased. I was able to do the job that I loved. Having a title as well as a degree helped people understand how I could be better available for them and serve them."

    While change may be slow, she said "our goal is to put facts on the ground, to place as many women out there in the Jewish community as quickly as possible so more people can see the positive impact that women have".

    At the same time, she and her colleagues are committed to remaining within the Orthodox fold. "This is a continuation of our mesorah, our tradition. We want to stay aligned with the comfort level of the Orthodox community."

    The experience of one of Yeshivat Maharat's first students, Ruth Balinksy Friedman, shows how opposition can melt away.

    "She was hired by The National Synagogue in Washington DC, Ohev Sholom," Rabba Hurwitz recalled. "There was a small group of detractors when she arrived who were not happy that she was assuming a full-time clergy position.

    "After being there for several months, and showing the community that she really intended to serve them and do the work of avodat Hashem, [serving God], those same people turned into some of her biggest fans. Though she had signed a two–year contract, after her first year, they immediately extended it to five. They recognised they couldn't really imagine the community without a woman in partnership with their rabbi."

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