Reassessing An Experiment


In December 1997, two women were hired as ìcongregational internsî by two Orthodox synagogues with the job description of preaching sermons, doing chaplaincy and counseling congregants. Feminist leaders cheered that this was the first time women were hired to do all these jobs as part of an Orthodox synagogueís spiritual staff.

The national media also took notice. Could Orthodox women rabbis be far off?

Rabbi Adam Mintz, when he hired the first intern at Lincoln Square Synagogue, told The Jewish Week: ìThree years from now, five years from now, at shuls that are truly Modern Orthodox, this will be a given.

îBut two and a half years after the pioneering experiment, both the congregational interns themselves and their rabbinic backers are seriously questioning whether it was successful.ìThe idea worked out well at the beginning,î Rabbi Mintz said this week, ìthen it was less successful.îIn an indication of how the experiment was received, a report on Modern Orthodox feminism released this year by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) referred to these interns as ìcrypto rabbinic.î

The intern program remains dry-docked in its original two synagogues, Lincoln Square on the Upper West Side and the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.

And Rabbi Mintz himself, while still committed to the idea of having women play expanded roles in Orthodox synagogues, is rethinking the kind of experience and background potential interns should bring to the job.The first intern, Julie Stern Joseph, is leaving Lincoln Square at the end of this month following a tenure marked by bitterness and regret, according to Rabbi Mintz and Joseph. Joseph declined to be interviewed for this story but made her feelings known publicly at JOFAís recent international conference and through friends who spoke to The Jewish Week.No woman has been hired to replace Joseph.Rabbi Mintz said that when he hired Joseph, ìI thought I needed someone young who could be a visionary, who could imagine the role of women changing. Now, I need a woman whoís more established and more mature.ì

Basically, Iím not willing to compromise. Iím not willing to take a 25-year-old now whoís just out of [the Orthodox womenís yeshiva] Drisha but without the social services and psychological kind of skills. Iím going to look hard, but Iím going to wait until I find someone who can really incorporateî all aspects of the job. He added that he also wonít be hiring anyone from Torat Miriam, the womenís study fellowship at Hebrew Institute, where that synagogueís interns trained.

Rabbi Mintzís rejection of Torat Miriam comes in the face of a Torat Miriam offer to subsidize the salary of any intern hired from its program.

Rabbi Avi Weiss, spiritual leader of Hebrew Institute and the founding director of Torat Miriam, told The Jewish Week that after 30 months of this offer, only one woman was hired, in Chicago, as an educational director, a job already held by many Orthodox women. ìEven at that,î said Rabbi Weiss, ìI had to pay $7,500.îRabbi Weissí own congregation, like Lincoln Square, also will have an opening at the end of the month, and he, too, hasnít hired a new intern though he is determined to do so. The first HIR intern, Sharona Halickman, remains with the synagogue as the education director; the second intern, Karen Miller, is leaving in June for graduate school.Both Halickman and Miller spoke warmly of the mentoring offered by Rabbi Weiss, who said: ìWeíve had wonderful experiences with both our interns. Sharona has been wonderful. I want Karen to continue teaching. Karen is a brilliant teacher.î

However, Miller responded: ìI was given the option to stay, but unless thereís a more full-time position for women, I felt some frustration with [the job] being very part time.îThough all three interns have spoken to each other about their experiences, Rabbi Weiss and Rabbi Mintz have barely compared notes. Rabbi Weiss said he and Rabbi Mintz have talked, ìbut not in depth.îIn February, in an intimate session at the JOFA conference, Julie Stern Joseph admitted that from the beginning, ìI was totally overwhelmed.î It was her dream job, but ìreality often bites. … You have a boss. And working in a synagogue, you have bosses. … You walk down the street and you have to say hello to everyone.ì

I did not anticipate the political ramifications of my job. I did not anticipate the media coverage. I remember saying, ëI donít want newspapers or journalists calling.í And the same people who said they would protect me, they were the same ones who gave the journalists my home phone number.î

Even away from the media, ìthe pressure of performing was great,î she said. Her congregation attracted Jewish scholars and leaders: ìJust imagine, on any given day, someoneís just going to walk in and theyíll come over and correct you. Theyíll tell you that you read a source incorrectly. Because why not? First thing, Iím a woman so they want to make sure that they know more than I do. … When someone comes over and even says ëlet me add to that,í it really hurts.î

But Rabbi Mintz said that, ìWhen Julie gave a lecture or a shiur in Chumash or Jewish history, it was top notch, as good as any man giving a shiur.î

Joseph confirmed the traditional Orthodox argument that a woman rabbi could be a sexual distraction. The older men, she says, thought she was ìcute.î She realized ìyouíre on show… everyone is looking at you. … Do I try not to be showy? I just decided you use the power of whatever you got,î she said, somewhat as a joke. ìActually, the only thing I disagree on [is] using oneís sexuality in kiruv [outreach]. Itís really inappropriate when youíre trying to bring someone closer to Judaism.îThe final straw, said Joseph, was the conflict of job and motherhood. Rabbi Mintz concurred: ìShe felt that her commitment was too much.îThereís still the hint of these internships being a stalking horse for women rabbis. Intern Miller says she recently led a shiva minyan, though she did not lead the services proper. ìThereís really no reason why a woman canít serve the same purpose that the assistant rabbi serves,î says Miller.JOFA vice president Bat Sheva Marcus observed: ìOn the one hand the rabbis need to pick someone with more maturity, thereís some truth to that. On the other hand, thereís some fundamental problems with the system, particularly the lack of a coherent title. The job description isnít clear in anybodyís mind, least of all the congregants who donít know if these women are rabbinic interns, which no rabbi wants to say, so instead theyíre treated like college interns.ìIf we want to promote women in leadership or scholarship roles, then we need a title that reflects leadership or scholarship. A title signals to the community how much respect is due the position. The community senses the ambivalence and so the community reacts ambivalently.