Almost a Rabbi: Woman’s Hire Charts Untested Orthodox Turf

An Orthodox synagogue, for the first time, has hired a woman to work as a rabbi — almost.

Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue has hired Julie Stern Joseph to teach adult education classes, provide pastoral counseling and visit women in the hospital — roles often performed by a rabbi.

Both Stern Joseph and Lincoln Square’s rabbi, Adam Mintz, in separate interviews, took pains to make clear that hers is not a clerical position.

But this is the first time that an Orthodox synagogue has been known to create a staff position for a woman in which she takes on these tasks, which are permitted to women according to an Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law.

The congregation is carefully calling her post that of a "congregational intern," and not using the term "para-rabbi," which is employed in some non- Orthodox synagogues to describe people who fill much the same role.

In the Orthodox view of Jewish law, women may not be ordained.

The topic has been highly sensitive within centrist Orthodoxy recently, as women with sophisticated secular educations have been recognized to have the capacity — and desire — for opportunities to study Judaism’s primary texts.

In the Orthodox world, the full-time adult study of Torah and Talmud has traditionally been available only to men.

Drisha, the institute for women’s advanced Torah study, started more than 15 years ago in New York City, becoming one of the first to offer the same opportunity to women.

The slow proliferation of programs offering such study to women has created a tension between traditional Orthodox religious roles that focus on women as mothers and wives and the possibility of talented woman working as religious leaders.

An independent program started this year by two rabbis who teach at the Yeshiva University-affiliated Stern College for Women, has come under fire in the centrist Orthodox community.

The Riverdale, N.Y.-based Torat Miriam educates women on a part-time basis to prepare them for non-rabbinic leadership roles within Orthodox institutions. But it has been rejected by some rabbis as beyond the bounds of what is permitted for women.

Such a climate has Stern Joseph very concerned about the way her part-time job at Lincoln Square will be perceived.

"There’s no thought that this role will evolve into a rabbinic position for women, because if there was, then I wouldn’t be involved with it," she said in an interview between classes at Drisha.

She is in her first year of full-time study in the institute’s Scholar’s Circle, which permits gifted women to study Talmud in the morning and halachah, or Jewish law, in the afternoon.

The 24-year-old also studied for more than two years at Midreshet Lindenbaum, a Jerusalem yeshiva for women.

"I want to provide a role for women in the community," she said. "If these roles are halachically permissible, and I can maximize that, then great.

"Women often feel disenfranchised in a synagogue, and if I can bridge a gap between women and the rabbi, and at the same time help the rabbi, then that’s very helpful."

Her new boss, Rabbi Mintz, said that despite worries that the new position would be controversial even at the flagship congregation of modern Orthodoxy, "the reaction from the community so far has been only positive."

"There’s always going to be opposition," he said, just as there was a century ago when Sarah Schneirer started the first schools for fervently Orthodox girls, which has grown into a whole network of schools known as the Bais Ya’acov movement.

"Like her, we are doing something within tradition rather than opposed to it," Mintz said.

"I hope this will become a model for other synagogues."

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