Life & Culture

Meet the rabbas

Thanks to an American yeshivah, Orthodox women can now study for rabbinic status. But what do they do when they graduate? Rebecca Schischa found out


Getting arrested on the job and standing on the podium with the Pope in Rome are not typical elements of an Orthodox rabbi’s job description. But the Orthodox rabbi in question is not particularly typical herself. Nor is she called “Rabbi”.

She is Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St Louis (JCRC), and she forms part of a steadily growing number of female clergy who have graduated from New York’s Yeshivat Maharat  (“Maharat” is a Hebrew acronym for female leader of Jewish law, spirituality and Torah), the first rabbinical school in North America to ordain Orthodox women. Here, it is best known as the place where Dina Brawer trained to become the UK’s first female Orthodox rabba. Another rabba, Ramie Smith, has just arrived in the UK, as scholar for the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) and spoke at  a pre-Purim event this week.

“I joke with people we are a lot less scary when you meet us. We weren’t radicals storming buildings; we were a group of women who wanted to study Torah and spread Torah,” says Neiss, 33, who formed part of the first cohort of students at Yeshivat Maharat, which opened in 2009.

She is referring to the furore that surrounded the school’s opening, with many in the mainstream Orthodox community branding the idea of Orthodox women rabbis as “not halachic” or “not tsnius” (modest). “We were surrounded by a lot of fear and distrust. We said we were just going to keep learning Torah and that’s what we did. But it’s not like we didn’t see or hear the criticism,” says Neiss, who is married with three young children.

Conversely, there was a sense of excitement and anxiety that they were “making history”, says Neiss, “but not yet knowing what that history was.” There was no guarantee that any of the students would be offered positions in the Orthodox community after graduating.

Hailing from Brooklyn, Neiss, who initially worked as a pulpit rabbi in St Louis, has a long history in interfaith work and social activism, and her current role at JCRC plays to her strengths. The organisation works across St Louis as a convener of the Jewish community, building bridges with other communities, and acting as a Jewish voice to lobby at state and federal level on social-justice issues, for Israel and interfaith relations.

“Right now we’re doing a lot supporting new Americans. How can the Jewish community be at the front lines for refugees coming into St Louis? We’re also working on criminal justice reform and racial equity post-Ferguson,” says Neiss.

Which brings us to her arrest. Around the first anniversary  in 2015 of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown Jr, an 18-year-old African-American, by a white police officer in Ferguson, a suburb of St Louis, Neiss — in her previous pulpit role — took part in a peaceful march of clergy from all faiths. They were aiming to present a list of changes connected to racial equity at the courthouse in Ferguson.

When the marchers reached the courthouse, they were greeted by riot police who had barricaded the plaza. Neiss was one of a group of people who crossed the police barricade and sat in front of the courthouse doors — 57 of them, including her, were arrested.

As they were taken to the jail (conveniently located inside the courthouse), Neiss describes seeing the discrepancy of treatment in action on that day.  Muslim protesters had  their hair coverings removed, for example, while she was allowed to keep hers on.  Only black members of the group were instructed to remove their shoelaces.

“I was home that night, no worse for the wear. But changed in myself, transformed for it,” says Neiss, who was ticketed “for blocking an entry-way”, so came away without a criminal record.

As for meeting the Pope, Neiss describes an extraordinary encounter which took place in 2015 when she was invited to join a Jewish commission to Rome.

The Pope was giving an address to a huge crowd in the plaza in Rome, and Neiss’s group was among only a handful invited to sit up close to him on the podium. After he finished his speech, he came down the stairs to speak to them. “It’s hard to describe his humility in words. Here is a head of state, a religious leader, coming to greet members of the Jewish community. And he stopped, looked and talked to each one of us, like he had nothing else to do. He had time for every person he met.”

Not every Maharat can boast such variety, but  as it enters its tenth year, Yeshivat Maharat is thriving, says Rabba Sara Hurwitz, its president and co-founder. There are now 26 women who have been ordained and, confounding the naysayers’ predictions, all 26 have been employed, with 11 working in pulpit positions, and others, like Neiss, in wider community leadership, or in education, university campus or chaplaincy roles. The 2019 graduating class consists of five students on the four-year ordination programme, with an additional three on the school’s advanced “executive” ordination track, designed for women already working in Jewish leadership positions.

The landscape has altered, says Hurwitz. “In the past ten years, we’ve seen an openness and a recognition that women need to be central to the fabric of spiritual leadership.

“The Orthodox community and the Jewish community at large is more reflective of the Jews in the pews. Women have been given a sense that they are participants rather than spectators in religious life.”

Hurwitz, who co-founded the school with Rabbi Avi Weiss, a key figure of the left-leaning Open Orthodox movement in America, has had much of the right-wing backlash directed at her personally.

She was the first Orthodox woman to be publicly ordained in the US ‑— by Weiss in 2009 (there were some private ordinations before her), initially taking on the title “Maharat”. When she changed her title to the more controversial “Rabba” some months later, there was a further outcry from the mainstream Orthodox establishment.

Since then, graduates have taken on a slightly confusing range of titles, including Maharat, Rabba, and Rabbanit. Only one graduate so far has adopted the title “Rabbi”.

So what’s it like for the graduates who serve as pulpit rabbis?

“Don’t ask any rabbi what they do as the answer is ‘everything’,” says Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman, 33, who serves as Maharat at Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue, an Open Orthodox shul with 350 member units in Washington, DC.

“Programming, some teaching, working with kids, scheduling the adult programming for the year, I was doing a little bit of everything.” Now, after five years in the job, she has narrowed her profile and grown into the teaching and pastoral aspect of the job, which is what she loves best.

Friedman, a Chicago native, was originally employed by Ohev Sholom’s rabbi, Shmuel Herzfeld, for two years, but the community saw a need to keep on two clergy and her contract was extended. “We don’t refer to it as ‘boss’,” says Friedman, about her working relationship with Herzfeld. “We partner as a team on certain initiatives, for example, the kashrut initiative [they are in the process of certifying some vegan restaurants in the DC area as kosher] but he has ultimate seniority.”

She grew up in a rabbinical family — her father is an Orthodox rabbi and was Hillel Director at Northwestern University for many years — but hadn’t imagined becoming a rabbi herself. “Even though my dad was a rabbi, women just weren’t rabbis!”

Unlike their counterparts in other denominations, Orthodox women rabbis cannot lead most parts of prayer services, mainly due to the fact that women are not counted in a minyan.

Yet Friedman’s presence on the women’s side of the mechitzah during Shabbat services is still significant. She delivers sermons, she recites certain permissible prayers such as the misheberachs, and she designates and assists women in carrying the sefer torah around their section. She also officiates at batmitzvah services.

Putting a very individual stamp to her role, Friedman has also become an outspoken champion for couples going through fertility challenges. In 2016, she made the brave decision to speak openly in a sermon about her and her husband Yoni’s own struggles — she experienced pregnancy loss and had to go through IVF before having her two sons, now aged three and 15 months.

In the sermon, Friedman spoke about “the loneliness of coming to shul when you’re having this silent struggle”. The response was extraordinary. “It just took someone talking about it publicly, that it really sucks to do it alone and the taboo went away,” she observes. She later turned her sermon into a powerful op-ed for the Washington Post entitled: “When you’re facing infertility, a synagogue can be the most painful place to go. Let’s change that.”

So where are the Maharats heading in the next few years? Apparently, the future is looking even bolder: a certain Rabbanit Hadas “Dasi” Fruchter, for example, is going where (almost) no Orthodox woman rabbi has ever gone before in North America — in the autumn of 2019 she’ll open her own shul, the South Philadelphia Shtibl.

Fruchter, 29, who has been working as an assistant spiritual leader at a large Modern Orthodox shul in Maryland, was approached by Start-Up Shul, a fund seeding innovative new synagogues in the US, and invited to set up her own community. Describing community-building as her “passion”, it was an opportunity not to be missed.

Based in an urban district of Philadelphia in the process of regeneration, the shtibl will probably attract Jews from all backgrounds, with a mix of empty nesters moving back into the city, and young couples starting to build families, says Fruchter.

“I think it will be really wonderful to re-envision an Orthodox community with some of these people.”            

Never a dull moment in the life of a Maharat.


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