NEW YORK, June 11 (JTA) Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in a Jewish enclave in the Bronx, Sharona Margolin Halickman longed to be doing the things her synagogue rabbis did.
But her grandmother told her, “No, you’re Orthodox, you can’t be a rabbi,” Halickman recalls.
Now Halickman, the newly installed “madrichah ruchanit,” or religious mentor, at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in Bronx, N.Y., is about as close to being a rabbi as an Orthodox woman can get.
She teaches religious classes, gives Shabbat sermons, coordinates services for funerals, weddings and B’nai Mitzvah, prepares candidates for conversion and offers religious counseling to individuals.
However, she cannot do anything that violates Orthodox interpretation of halachah, or Jewish law. That means that she doesn’t count as a member of a minyan, or prayer quorum, and can’t lead prayer services, sit on a rabbinic court or serve as a religious witness.
Halickman’s new role comes as Orthodox women are achieving unprecedented levels of Jewish learning.
Post-high school religious study has become almost de rigeur for North American Orthodox women. Yeshiva University recently started an advanced Talmud study program for women.
In Israel, a small cadre of women have trained to become halachic consultants on family purity, the laws that govern mikvah use and married couples’ sexual relations.
Hebrew Institute’s senior rabbi, Avi Weiss, said he hopes to create a more expansive program in the United States, one that will train women to make halachic decisions on family purity and a range of other issues.
But while Halickman and Weiss tout Halickman’s new job as a significant step forward, others wonder whether it’s just a fancy new name for a small experiment that was launched in New York in 1997 but never took off nationally: the congregational intern program.
In that program, which was compared to internships for rabbinic students, young women took temporary posts with duties similar to Halickman’s.
However, only two synagogues Hebrew Institute and Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue participated. When Lincoln Square discontinued the program last year, many observers pronounced it a failure.
Halickman and Weiss insist that her position is different because it is a permanent, full-time role and because she participates fully in planning and behind-the-scenes work that interns did not do.
“With the internship, everyone said, ‘What are you interning to become?’ ” said Halickman, who was one of Hebrew Institute’s interns before becoming the synagogue’s educational director.
The new job, she said, provides more of a career path.
At her recent installation ceremony, Ronnie Becher, an officer with both the Hebrew Institute and Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, described the “madrichah ruchanit” job as a “giant step on the road of granting recognition and dignity” to the “vast untapped potential of women.”
Halickman’s eager smile, slender build and white canvas tennis shoes make her look younger than her 27 years.
Despite her trailblazing status, she is reluctant to describe herself as a feminist.
“I can have my own role. I can be part of the team but don’t have to be exactly like the rabbi or men,” she said. “Often, I find feminists just want to be like the men.”
Halickman knows that the liberal streams of Judaism allow women larger roles in ritual activities and would have given her the opportunity to become a rabbi but she said she never was tempted to leave Orthodoxy.
“I’m not interested in mixed prayer services; I would have a problem with that,” she said. “I want to do this because I want to be more committed to the religion,” and studying in a Reform or Conservative venue “would be taking me away from the religion I was used to.”
The halachic restrictions that limit her job duties do not bother her, she said.
“I feel like there are so many things I can do that the rabbis can’t do,” she said, noting that she is able to accompany women converts to the mikvah, serve as a role model for Bat Mitzvah students and assist women during prayer services.
“Often we dance in the middle of the service or at the end if it’s a happy occasion, and I’ll help get the women started,” she said.
Halickman strictly follows the obligation to dress modestly. She covers her shoulder-length, strawberry blond hair with large, stylish hats and wears long, loose-fitting dresses.
While few people will publicly criticize the Hebrew Institute, some Orthodox leaders worry that Halickman’s new job will lead to the ordination of women.
Weiss said he is familiar with the “slippery slope” concern, but that “we’re convinced we’re on very solid halachic grounds.”
Others question whether women should have public leadership roles.
“Some would say it’s not modest that women be as public, but I say, all you have to do is listen to Sharona and she’s the epitome of leadership with humility,” Weiss said. “She knows how to assert herself and is a strong leader, but a very unassuming person.”
In some ways, Halickman’s job is not so different from that of rebbetzins, or rabbis’ wives, many of whom traditionally have offered classes and counseling for women congregants.
Today, however, more and more rebbetzins have their own careers. “I’m not married to a rabbi, so does that mean I should never get to do all these things?” she asked.
Her husband, Josh, is an accountant, and is a regular fixture at the shul, along with the couple’s toddler son, Dov.
At the installation ceremony, Deborah Cooperman, a member of the shul’s learning service, described Halickman as “academically rigorous, intellectually honest and open and so supportive of students.”
“With Sharona, there are no unaskable questions and that gives her students untold confidence,” Cooperman said.
At a recent class in the synagogue’s library, Halickman was poised but informal, encouraging the mostly older women students to participate and patiently answering their questions.
At the end of the one-hour session, retiree Selma Brick said she had taken several classes with Halickman because the young woman “knows her stuff.”
“It’s a first,” Brick said of Halickman’s new role. “It’s what she’s been doing, but now she’s got a title. She’s not going to be a lady rabbi, but she’s a very learned person.”