At a long wooden table, two students peruse a page of Talmud. They await their rav, their teacher. It could be a scene at any rabbinical seminary. But in at least one respect, it is not typical at all. The students are Orthodox women, and are studying to become rabbis.
They belong to the tiny entry class of Yeshivat Maharat, the world's first Orthodox rabbinical seminary for women, which opened last autumn in New York City. The students are pursuing the same course of study as male rabbis, though for now at least, they will not adopt the title. And yet, for American Orthodox Jewry, the school's existence marks a revolutionary moment, one that was on "no one's radar screen 30 years ago", according to noted Orthodox feminist and writer Blu Greenberg.
"It's a big step to go down this road," admits one student, Rena Rackovsky Bannett, a 52-year-old grandmother, artist, educator and scientist, who jokes that her decision to enroll was "a mid-life crisis". Bannett says that the concept of a woman getting smichah, or rabbinical ordination, "takes her out of her comfort zone," but so far, she has been mesmerised by the education, and ultimately hopes to use her knowledge to teach others.
Though Yeshivat Maharat breaks new ground, the school opened quietly in September, with little fanfare. The Jewish blogosphere barely buzzed after the initial announcement last spring. Large American Orthodox organisations did not issue public statements. Protesters did not march against the school.
However, all that changed in January. The school's founder, Rabbi Avi Weiss - rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR), a large Orthodox synagogue in the Bronx - altered the title of the first woman he ordained, Sara Hurwitz, who is employed at his synagogue as assistant rabbi, from Maharat, an acronym meaning "Leader" in Jewish religious law, spiritual matters and Torah, to "Rabba", the feminine version of Rabbi.
Everything I'm doing feels totally natural
Many elements in the Orthodox world, in particular the strictly Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America, condemned the move, and an intense debate was conducted in Orthodox circles about the nature of the role women leaders in Orthodox synagogues can take on.
Ultimately, the Rabbinical Council of America, the world's largest rabbinical association, allowed Hurwitz to retain her title of Rabba, although she now says she is reconsidering it. However, the RCA made Rabbi Weiss commit that he would not confer the title Rabba on the graduates of his women's yeshivah. The group is intending to discuss the role of women in synagogue leadership at their convention next month.
Back at Yeshivat Maharat, the women are trying to keep a low profile and weather the storm. "We're just trying to focus on the learning," says student Abby Brown Scheier.
The four students who comprise the first class of Yeshivat Maharat were selected from a pool of 35 applicants, and have all been beneficiaries of Jewish educational opportunities available to women in recent decades. All the women are proficient in Talmud and rabbinic texts. Three of the four have studied in the Drisha Institute's Scholar's Circle, a respected certificate programme in Talmud and Jewish law for women in New York City.
The students are largely not focused on their role as pioneers, and are not yet sure what part their degrees will play in their careers.
Here, however, the similarities end. The class includes two women who commute from out of town via web conferencing systems; the age range spans almost two decades, and the class covers a diverse set of Orthodox backgrounds.
Ruth Balinsky, who at 24 is the youngest student, is the product of an Orthodox household where she was not discouraged from undertaking the same Jewish obligations as a man, says: "Everything I'm doing feels totally natural."
Another student, Rachel Kohl Finegold, 29, stands apart even in this accomplished group. She is one of handful of women in the United States to already hold a significant post at an Orthodox synagogue. Kohl Finegold e-commutes to class from Chicago, where she serves as education and ritual director at the Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel Congregation.
"Right now," she says, "I'm counted as a religious leader because the rabbi of my synagogue chooses to include me." She decided to undertake the Yeshivah Maharat programme, because a degree would give her "another layer of authority".
The yeshivah's students follow the same four-year course of study as in an Orthodox rabbinical school for men. As in traditional yeshivas, they spend many hours poring over texts with a chevrutah, a study partner. Two afternoons a week, they receive instruction in halachah, Jewish law, from Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, who has taught in Chasidic institutions elsewhere in New York.
The school is still small, funded through individual donors, with a goal of raising $100,000 by the end of the school year. It is an independent entity, not affiliated with either the Drisha Institute, whose space it uses, or with HIR. It is also not considered a sister institution to Rabbi Weiss's Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, which he founded in 1999 to offer an open-minded approach to Orthodoxy.
One question mark for the students is where they will find employment. Hurwitz says that she is already in conversation with one rabbi about creating a position at his synagogue, and has broached the topic with three others. In addition, some graduates may opt to work in settings with a more relaxed attitude toward female spiritual leaders - on college campuses, at day schools or at social justice organisations.
According to Jonathan D Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, the impact of having Orthodox women in rabbinical positions may not be apparent for many years to come. "It is important to remember that innovations in Orthodoxy happen slowly," he says. "It took years for the teaching of Talmud to women to have an impact. It took years for women's yeshivot in Israel to have an impact."
For their part, the Maharat students say they are concentrating on their studies "It's really about the process for the moment," says Abby Brown Scheier, who commutes to class via a web-conferencing system from her book-lined home in Montreal, where she lives with her husband, an Orthodox rabbi. Scheier, who is 31, says she has told her three-year-old daughter, she's "going to be a rabbi like abba," like daddy.
The UK's candidate
At least one British woman is considering studying at Yeshivat Maharat in New York next year. "Deena" - she does not want to be identified - says she is not interested in becoming a pulpit rabbi, but wants to be qualified to answer halachic questions, particularly from women.
"Lots of halachic questions don't get asked or get less than a sensitive response," she says. "I want the learning so that people can ask me."
A Jewish educator in her thirties, Deena says she studied in Israel "alongside the men getting rabbinic ordination". In New York - if she goes - she would also be looking for "some kind of peer group of women involved in learning", which she finds is missing in the UK.
Her husband, who is not employed by the Jewish community, is prepared to move with her, and so far her friends have been supportive. The deciding factor is whether ordination would be a "one way ticket".
"Could we come back to this country and slot back in, or would it put us on the outer limits of Orthodoxy? In the US, such things are more acceptable. Finding a niche here is not impossible, but harder."