Meet the new feminist faces of Orthodoxy

They are defying an establishment that wishes to keep the rabbinate a male monopoly


Five years ago the first students graduated from a unique institution in New York. Yeshivat Maharat was founded by the doyen of “Open Orthodoxy”, Rabbi Avi Weiss, as the first in the country to ordain Orthodox women.

Twenty-six women have now received semichah from Yeshivat Maharat after completing an intensive four-year programme, among them this year the first from Britain, Rabbi Dina Brawer, the founder of the UK branch of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (Jofa).

On Sunday, Jofa supporters gathered at a dinner in London to celebrate her achievement. Two guest speakers were previous graduates of YM, Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold and Rabbi Lila Kagedan.

It is one thing to ordain women, but another for congregations to give them jobs in defiance of an establishment that wishes to keep the rabbinate a male monopoly. Both Maharat Finegold and Rabbi Kagedan work in historic synagogues in North America — and both in roles not specifically created for women.

Maharat Finegold, who was in YM’s first graduating class, is director of education and spiritual development at Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal.

Founded in 1846, it is Canada’s second oldest synagogue, follows Orthodox halachah and is, she believes, the largest synagogue in the country with a mechitzah.

She was recruited, shortly before her ordination, to replace the associate rabbi who had left. “They were interviewing both men and women for the position,” she said.

“I was the first Orthodox woman to be hired as synagogue clergy in Canada. Thankfully, the board, the search committee and our senior rabbi worked really hard to explain who I was.”

While she had occupied a similar role in a congregation in Chicago before semichah, Shaar Hashomayim with 1,300 households was much larger.

But her arrival was smooth and, if there were members of this venerable establishment wary about a woman joining the rabbinic team, she only found out later “when they told me they had become more accustomed and comfortable with me as time went on.

“One gentleman said, ‘I’ve always been a misogynist and felt men should be in leadership positions — and you have changed my mind’.”

Rabbi Kagedan is so far the only woman to be sole rabbi of an Orthodox congregation in the US. After graduating from YM in 2015, she took an assistant rabbi’s post at a congregation in New Jersey before, a few months later, being chosen to be rabbi of the delightfully named Walnut Street Synagogue in Chelsea, Massachusetts.

Founded in 1870, it was once the area’s flagship synagogue but its congregation shrank as the community moved into newer suburbs.

“I had a similar experience to Maharat Finegold in that men and women were interviewed for the same position,” said Rabbi Kagedan. “They were looking for a role to revitalise a historic shul.”

When she was appointed, she acknowledged, “there was opposition. At times, there was some drama that surrounded the hire.

“Now I am in the third year of my contract, I have found it’s been a wonderful reception — warm, welcoming. Once people start doing the work they are hired to do, the controversy melts into the background — and what you are left with is a committed clergy person doing her work.”

As the mara d’atra, answering halachic queries for her congregants, men come to her as much as women.

Both do pretty much everything a male rabbi would do — except to take services.

“In my own community, there isn’t anything that I don’t do in terms of officiating at life-cycle rituals,” said Rabbi Kagedan. “I am the only rabbi of the shul so it does fall to me to do those — though the services of the shul itself are what they describe as centrist Orthodox so women do not participate in ritual aspects of prayer life. It is not egalitarian or a partnership minyan.”

Maharat Finegold runs a whole gamut of educational programmes, from pre-school to adult. When she gave her first Rosh Hashanah sermon in the synagogue, “I remember coming down from the bimah and walking into the women’s section and people were crying. One woman took my hand and said, ‘we’ve been waiting for you’.”

She did not officiate at life-cycle events immediately. “It wouldn’t have been natural for me to do that anyway because I didn’t have relationships yet with the congregants. That took a couple of years.”

Now she might read out the ketubah or address the bride and groom beneath the chupah.

“Sometimes, after I do a wedding, even a couple from a Charedi community would come up to me and say, ‘that just felt normal’,” said Rabbi Kagedan.

“The more women are in leadership roles, the more it does feel normal.”

“Both of us grew up in Orthodox communities,” Maharat Finegold added, “it wouldn’t have looked familiar to me to have a woman officiating at a life cycle event. I have had to get myself used to that too.”

Graduates from YM choose their title along with the congregation that recruits them, Maharat Finegold explained. Maharat is a newly minted term, an acronym for halachic, spiritual, Torah leader which was originally designed to avoid anything that sounded like “rabbi”. But students have gone on to adopt a variety of titles — rabbanit, rabba and, indeed, rabbi.

“The title conversation is not the most important,” said Maharat Finegold. “I would rather focus on the function, what the women are doing.

“I think the title will sort itself out over the next couple of decades. There aren’t enough of us out there yet. We see ourselves as in the same roles, regardless of title.”

Whatever the title, the central Orthodox establishment remains against female ordination. But even though the opposition of a body such as the Rabbinical Council of America might deter some synagogues from appointing a woman to the rabbinic team, openings for women remain in schools, campuses and hospital chaplaincy.

And both women note positively new women’s leadership initiatives introduced by the establishment Orthodox Union. “We consider the women who are going to benefit as our sisters and colleagues,” said Rabbi Kagedan.

Beyond her own synagogue, Maharat Finegold has found that when she meets rabbis and leaders from Montreal’s Charedi community, they are always “extremely friendly, respectful. They call me by my title.

“When they see me at a simchah or a community event, I get a nice hello. I don’t feel any tension.”

Still, when the two taught seminars during their UK visit, the sessions did not take place on United Synagogue premises but in private homes — though one, the JC understands, was in the house of a US rabbi.

“It’s so much more important to focus on the Torah that is being shared between people than on the location,” Rabbi Kagedan said.

Overall, she remains optimistic about the future possibilities. “I did not think in my lifetime I would have the opportunity to receive Orthodox rabbinic ordination,” she said.

“That feels like a tremendous blessing and a tremendous gift. One I have worked very hard for and which has now come to feel very natural.

“That has allowed me to think anything is possible, so long as women have access to a very high level of learning and opportunity to educate themselves and use the education the education they receive.”

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