On a beautiful summer day, over 300 people came to the Ramaz High School in Manhattan to celebrate the first graduating class of Yeshivat Maharat. Started in 2009 by Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabba Sarah Hurwitz, the yeshiva bills itself as the first Orthodox institution to train women as spiritual leaders and legal decisors, despite not conferring the title ‘rabbi’ on these women.
Though the liberal movements have been ordaining women for decades now, this ceremony was the first such occasion in the Orthodox world. Previously, Weiss had ordained Hurwitz as rabba, a feminized version of rabbi. But as Hurwitz told a Fox News camera crew, she was then just one person. This is now a movement:
“Today is a historical moment,” she said. “That now this a movement not just one person. It’s now about men and women serving in a movement side by side. Orthodox girls now have a clear path they can follow.”
Speakers noted the the historic nature of the event, which conferred the title of maharat — an acronym meaning female spiritual, legal and Torah leader — on Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Rachel Kohl Feingold and Abby Brown Schier. Some invoked Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, or Igor Stravinsky first performance of “The Rite of Spring” (which caused a riot). Others quoted the Bible’s descriptions of messianic times to highlight both the importance and historic singularity of this event. The graduates themselves spoke more humbly about their accomplishments and what lies ahead.
The ceremony also featured a well-crafted video that told the story of the institution’s origin. Perhaps as a nod to the heavy media presence, or perhaps out of a perceived need to address the controversy surrounding it, the video addressed the legal precedents for women as spiritual leaders and how the school is simply answering the call of what the community desires. The video asserted that no part of Jewish law disallowed women from fulfilling such roles and noted that the maharat graduates study the same content, and with the same rigor, as male rabbinical students.
“It’s beautiful and I am proud of my colleagues,” said Schier. “It is historic, but we are trying to just be in the moment now, and maybe when we look back we will better appreciate how historic of a moment this really is.”