In Uncharted Waters


Last December, the appointment of women rabbinic interns in two Orthodox synagogues here sparked heated debate about leadership roles for women within Orthodoxy.But a year later, the debate seems to have dropped off the radar screen and the hirings remain a pioneering — if isolated — experiment at the two Modern Orthodox congregations.

The rabbis of the two shuls, Lincoln Square Synagogue of the Upper West Side and the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, said this week they are thrilled with their “congregational interns,” Julie Stern Joseph and Sharona Halickman — the first women paid by Orthodox synagogues to perform duties associated with male clergy.

But a year after their hiring, none of the more than 1,000 Orthodox synagogues in North America has hired a woman intern in 1998, despite an offer by the Hebrew Institute’s Rabbi Avi Weiss to subsidize salaries. And the rabbis themselves acknowledge that they are unclear what the next step will be for the women they’ve hired.Brigitte Dayan — like Halickman, a graduate of the one-year Torat Miriam women’s program based at Hebrew Institute — has been hired by Ansche Shalom in Chicago. But while her salary is being subsidized, her duties are limited to that of a part-time educational director.There are 13 women in the Torat Miriam study group this year, three more than last year. Joseph was hired after studying in the larger and more intensive Drisha yeshiva for women.

Maybe one year is too soon to tell,” said Rabbi Simcha Krauss of the Young Israel of Hillcrest, who has been on the front lines of other Orthodox feminist issues, such as women’s prayer groups, which have grown significantly nationwide in recent years.Bat Sheva Marcus, co-chair of last year’s International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy, and a Hebrew Institute convergent, agrees.

Change takes a tremendous amount of time, and one year isn’t a tremendous amount of time,” she said. “The question is, are we really preparing the women for leadership roles, or are we just creating the leadership roles for the women? I’d like to see women given an education equivalent to a man’s smicha [ordination], and I don’t think we have women in that situation yet.

Centrist Orthodox leaders are not seeing a groundswell of support for the idea of congregational interns. Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, said he has traveled around the country and not heard the subject of “interns” broached. Rabbi Jacob Rubenstein of the Young Israel of Scarsdale and president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest centrist Orthodox rabbinic guild, also said he has heard no talk of interns.

At Lincoln Square, Joseph is doing hands-on congregational work: She teaches monthly classes on women in the Bible, gives occasional lectures and sermons, works with bat mitzvah girls and participates in the Jewish Community Center of the Upper West Side’s bereavement group. Early on, though, it wasn’t easy, and her first days on the job were “very uncomfortable. People outside New York didn’t understand what was happening,” she said.

Everyone had their fears and their wishes. Those who wanted women rabbis thought this was the beginning,” Joseph continued. “And those [on the right] who said, ‘Look what’s happening to Orthodoxy, women are becoming rabbis,’ they weren’t listening to what I was saying,” about having no desire to be a rabbi, or even a full-time intern.But Lincoln Square’s Rabbi Adam Mintz said opposition within his synagogue to the idea of congregational interns has been non-existent: “I haven’t heard a peep. At the beginning I heard about it from elsewhere. [Since then], I haven’t.”The idea of congregational interns was born two years ago at the first International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy, when some suggested it was wiser to focus on what women can do in the Orthodox synagogue rather than what they can’t, or what their title might be.So, last December, Rabbi Mintz announced the hiring of Joseph, then 24, as a congregational intern. He explained then to The Jewish Week, “I could introduce her as a rabbinic intern and make a lot of trouble, and it will go or not go, but that’s not my purpose at all. I’d like this to be acceptable to the whole congregation.”A few days later, Rabbi Weiss hired Sharona Halickman, with the title “Torat Miriam intern.”The job description was that of generic American clergy: sermons, teaching, pastoral counseling (particularly to women), chaplaincy and communal leadership. Adhering to halachic restrictions, the interns do not serve on a rabbinical court or officiate at services.Rabbi Mintz recalled, “The publicity was fantastic, extremely positive, and in some cases surprisingly so. I think we rode on that publicity.

While Joseph eschews the spotlight — she expressed uneasiness about being interviewed for this article — she is quite popular among congregants. Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald of the National Outreach Center, a member of Lincoln Square, said, “She’s doing a great job. Everybody loves her. Even me.

Joseph, in turn, said she enjoys her job and feels “really accepted as part of the shul.” Her husband, Rabbi Joshua Joseph — hired over the summer as another Lincoln Square Synagogue intern — refused to be interviewed because he was so heavily teased by classmates at Yeshiva University about his wife’s position.Nevertheless, despite the Josephs’ unease about attracting attention — even to the point of refusing to have her picture taken for this article — Rabbi Mintz said, “If this works, they’re going to create a new kind of model: the rabbinic power couple, however you want to say it.”For now, the job is still evolving. Rabbi Weiss allows Halickman to deliver the sermon in the traditional rabbinic slot, after the Torah reading and before Mussaf; Rabbi Mintz says no, “at least right now.

So Joseph — who’s also expecting her first baby — addresses the congregation about once every two months, immediately after services rather than during it.At the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Rabbi Weiss said, “Sharona’s had significant impact. She leads a bet midrash on Monday nights. She has real hasidim and hasidot [devotees]. Her strength is not only cerebral, but an emotional, spiritual, experiential interplay.

Any criticism? “I don’t hear criticism in my shul,” said Rabbi Weiss. “I’m sure there’s discussion, but I don’t hear it.”“It’s working out well,” Halickman says. “I’ve had a very positive response from congregation. No negativity. Once people get to know me,” she said with a laugh, “they see I’m nothing controversial.”Rabbi Weiss admitted that, like Rabbi Joseph, he’s been teased, too, at Yeshiva University for his part in the internships, but he shrugs it off. Rabbi Weiss teaches Jewish studies at Stern College.

Some of the rabbis would say, ‘What is your zayde doing now?’ implying my grandfather is turning over in his grave. ‘What’s your mother doing?’ I say back to them, ‘You know what they’re doing? They’re shepping nachas.’ ”Despite Rabbi Weiss’ obvious pride, Bat Sheva Marcus questions the larger vision of what, beyond these part-time congregational internships, would constitute a career in synagogue leadership for older women.“Has anybody ever defined what these rabbinic intern positions are supposed to look like or where it’s supposed to lead?” she asked. “Is this supposed to be a career? If we decide that this is not something that will work, we have to create something that will work. We have to get women who are truly prepared in all facets of leadership.”