Orthodox women push the limits

NEW YORK, Feb. 23 (JTA) — It was a revolutionary step when two prominent modern Orthodox synagogues hired women to be congregational interns two years ago — a step that critics viewed as coming too close to allowing Orthodox women to become rabbis.

While the three women who have worked so far in the two part-time positions have served many of the same functions that an assistant rabbi does — teaching and counseling and delivering occasional sermons — there are things that Jewish law dictates they cannot do, as women, like lead the congregation in prayer.

One said, in a session at the Third International Conference on Orthodoxy & Feminism, held in New York this week, that while she privately used to wish that she could one day earn Orthodox rabbinic ordination, the experience of working as a congregational intern has convinced her that being a pulpit rabbi is not a job she’d want anyway.

Julie Stern Joseph works at Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue and plans to leave her position in June. Sharona Margolin Harlickman has been promoted into the position of education director at the Hebrew Institute in Riverdale, N.Y. The second woman to become a congregational intern there, Karen Miller, also spoke.

They are, they made clear, women in unique positions.

Each of them is a learned scholar in her own right, a graduate of prestigious advanced women’s Torah learning programs and each presently pursuing doctorates.

They each work as teachers of men and women in their synagogues and deliver sermons.

But some of their most rewarding work, each said, has been in the area of pastoral care, reaching other women.

They have worked with female converts and accompanied them to the mikvah, or ritual bath, for their final step in the process of becoming a Jew. Since a potential convert is tested by three rabbis at the mikvah, men whom they don’t know well and who are often just outside the door of the ritual bath before the woman submerses herself to become a Jew, it can be an intimidating experience for a woman alone.

For Margolin Harlickman, who is a new mother, a meaningful experience has been turning a “Mommy and me” class into a learning chavurah, where women bond and also learn about the Torah portion of the week, she said.

Stern Joseph cited as meaningful teaching parent-daughter Bat Mitzvah classes and providing spiritual and emotional counseling to women. Another important role, she said, has been answering questions about the laws of family purity for women, and bringing to a rabbi those that she couldn’t answer on behalf of the woman with the intimate question.

And yet, despite the fact that all of them are married and live in vibrant Jewish communities, and two have children, each of them is herself, in a sense, a woman alone.

They are working in areas where no woman has worked before. They are women without obvious mentors, women without clear guideposts, women working without precedent.

As rewarding as it often is, it is not easy, they said.

“I was tired of being the trend-setter,” said Stern Joseph, who plans to leave her post in June but in the meantime has cut back considerably on her time working as a congregational intern, instead focusing on working on her doctorate and on mothering her son.

The congregational interns are confronting some of the same issues as high-level, highly visible women in the corporate world, coupled the glare of the spotlight on personal issues that comes with working in a synagogue.

When Stern Joseph had her first child, just over a year ago, “I wanted so badly to show everyone I could do it all. I went back to work and school when he was 5 weeks old.

“But is doing it all the model I want to project?” she asked.

Despite the visibility and prestige of the post, which are as great as that for any learned Orthodox woman, congregational interns earn what rabbinical school interns do in their part-time pulpits — $10,000 a year.

The fact remains that they have nowhere to go, professionally speaking, from here. While rabbinical interns will soon become rabbis, congregational interns become high-achieving women with an impressive set of professional skills and experience, and no job prospects.

That is why she is working on a doctorate — as something to fall back on, Miller said.

“Women do not have degrees or titles within the Orthodox world which recognize their years of learning, and it’s not reflected in their pay. The same accomplishment” as a man has achieved “does not translate into equal pay because there’s no certification for them,” said David Jackson, Miller’s husband, who spoke in the session from the audience.

Rabbi Avi Weiss, spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute, said in an interview that these positions permit women to function “in very full ways in Orthodox synagogues within halachah,” or Jewish law.

“We could use more interns” at the Hebrew Institute, he said. “But the real challenge is, for these women, what are you interning for?”

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