Winds Of Change


It is two days after Sandy, and the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan is overrun with stir- (and storm) crazy parents and their progeny. Ruth Balinsky Friedman, however, cuts through the boisterous crowd with ease.

When I spot her, I can’t help but be surprised. Friedman only slightly resembles the anxious Barnard College graduate I’d interviewed three years earlier.

At that time she had just started her studies at Yeshivat Maharat, the world’s first Orthodox rabbinical seminary for women. Now married, Friedman, who is 27, tucks her mane of curly hair beneath a hat. She comports herself with a friendly confidence. And in a few short months, Friedman — along with two others — will complete another milestone: graduating from Yeshivat Maharat’s first class.

While I’ve been preoccupied by children in recent years, distracted by hurricanes (mostly inside my home), quiet winds of change have continued to blow through Modern Orthodoxy.

“I’m excited for what comes next,” says Friedman. Sitting in an empty classroom of the JCC, where she interns once a week teaching classes as part of her rabbinical studies, Friedman speaks with a calm composure. She talks of the joy of learning the technical, mathematical details integral to the laws of kashrut. She laughs at childhood memories at Northwestern University Hillel, where her father Rabbi Michael Balinsky worked for many years, and where the students would tease her that she too was bound for the rabbinate. As a girl, she would reply, “Well, no. That’s not a role that women fill.”

Now, “it’s totally unexpected, but I somehow find myself on that path,” she says. Granted, it is a path that may twist in a different direction from that of men on a similar journey. Orthodox female clergy refrain from certain roles, such as serving as a witness, in accordance with Jewish Law.

In fact, some readers may not consider the upcoming ordinations at Yeshivat Maharat to be so revolutionary. After all, a few Modern Orthodox synagogues have employed female congregational interns since the late 1990s. After all, these graduates will not be called rabbis, but will be distinguished by the less controversial title of maharat, an acronym for — manhigah hilchatit ruchanit toranit, meaning, “leader in halakha [Law], spirituality and Torah.”

But a rabbi by any other name still functions as a leader — and the graduates of Yeshivat Maharat, with the backing of rabbinical seminary education behind them, will not settle for entry level posts for very long. The school would like to “create facts on the ground,” to launch female spiritual leaders, without regard to their title, says Rabba Sara Hurwitz, who is dean of Yeshivat Maharat, and a spiritual leader of Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.

When Rabbi Avi Weiss conferred the title of “rabba” on Hurwitz in early 2010, he was threatened with a kind of excommunication. Graduates of Yeshivat Maharat may decide, in coordination with organizations that hire them, to adopt titles other than maharat. For now, “the women just want to do the work and serve the community” — no matter what they are called, says Rabba Hurwitz.

Rabba Hurwitz speaks of other progress in the last three years, including the establishment of a network of Orthodox female religious leaders who meet every few months, and the creation of Yeshivat Maharat’s advisory board, which includes 14 rabbis. “Nobody thinks twice about things that seemed unimaginable a few years ago,” says the rabba. “Women never used to come onto the bima during the prayer for the sick. Now I lead it or the intern leads the Mishaberach.”

Rachel Kohl Finegold, also in the first graduating class of Yeshivat Maharat, uses Skype to virtually attend sessions from Chicago, where she serves as educational and ritual director at Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation. In her current job, she teaches, delivers sermons, and even fields some questions about Jewish law. But Finegold says that “not having any signifier makes people unsure of how to relate to me.” She’s in discussions now with the synagogue about how becoming a maharat will alter her role.

As for Friedman, she says, “There’s good energy. I don’t feel like I’m doing this alone. It doesn’t feel like [it’s] as much of a risk now.”

Elicia Brown’s column appears the second week of the month. E-mail her at elicia