Two weeks after the Rabbinical Council of America appointed a new conversion committee with five women, Dr. Michelle Friedman of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah announced her acceptance to the Beth Din of America’s board of directors.
Though the Beth Din of America, the country’s pre-eminent Orthodox religious court, claims to have invited “several women” to join the board, Friedman is the first woman to publically accept the invitation.
“The board is going to focus on more big-picture issues, rather than policy making,” said Friedman in a phone interview. “That being said, I’m looking forward to getting to know the different people on the board, and hopefully making some positive changes together.”
The organization began an initiative to “repopulate” the board in 2012, said its director, Rabbi Shlomo Weissmann. “We’re looking for new board members that represent the broad swath of the Jewish community,” he said.
Friedman is the founder and chair of the department of pastoral counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a Modern Orthodox rabbinical school. The school espouses an “open” and “non-dogmatic” approach to Orthodoxy, according to its website. Friedman is also an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Mount Sinai Hospital.
The names of the other women invited to the 30-member board are not yet public, Rabbi Weissmann said.
The Beth Din of America’s board members “do not play a day-to-day role in the function of the Beth Din” and have “no role in formulating halachic [legal] policy or halachic decision-making,” Rabbi Weissmann said. Rather, board members oversee “governance and fundraising.”
“The board is not the face of the Beth Din — the face of the Beth Din is the rabbinic leadership,” he said.
Though the news of the inclusion of women in the organization’s leadership follows on the heels of the RCA’s decision to appoint a new conversion committee including five female members, a first in the RCA’s 80-year history, Rabbi Weissmann stressed that the two incidents were not connected. “We started putting plans for the board into action three or four months ago,” he said.
The RCA, the largest council of Orthodox rabbis worldwide, founded the Beth Din of America in 1960. The court adjudicates on issues of divorce, conversion and arbitration.
Together with the RCA, the Beth Din of America also oversees the Geirus Protocols and Standards (GPS) for its national network of rabbinic courts overseeing conversion, although the Beth Din of America does not itself perform Jewish conversions.
The new conversion committee is intended to review the current GPS conversion process and suggest safeguards against possible abuses.
The committee was formed in response to the Oct. 14 arrest of Rabbi Barry Freundel, of Washington, D.C., which “brought to light the need for a review of the GPS process,” the RCA notes on its website.
“The Beth Din board has not been very active for a long time,” said Friedman. “I think these new appointments, including my own, indicates that the leadership wants that to change.”