Brooklyn Orthodox synagogue hires woman as spiritual leader


(JTA) — A modern Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn has hired a woman as its spiritual leader, the latest in a handful of Orthodox synagogues to hire a woman to a clergy position.

Prospect Heights Shul, a congregation in the neighborhood of the same name, has hired Michal Kohane as its interim spiritual leader to serve alongside Senior Rabbi Ysoscher Katz. Her title, rosh kehila, translates in English to “head of the community.”

Because the synagogue is Orthodox, Kohane will not lead services. The synagogue also maintains that, as a woman, she won’t have the authority to rule on matters of Jewish law, though Kohane’s seminary, Yeshivat Maharat, says she will be qualified to do so once she graduates. A news release Tuesday from the synagogue said Kohane will host community events and serve as a “teacher and spiritual guide.”

“Michal has all the essential qualities necessary for successful spiritual leadership: she combines knowledge of Torah, passion for Yiddishkeit, and extreme sensitivity to others,” Katz said in the news release, using a Yiddish term for Judaism.

As of May, four Orthodox synagogues in the United States employed women as clergy. All are graduates of Maharat, a liberal Orthodox seminary for women, where Kohane is set to graduate in 2020.

Since its founding in 2009, the New York City school has drawn controversy. Although its graduates eschew the title “rabbi,” the Orthodox Union has ruled that women cannot serve as clergy and has asked women serving in clergy roles to change their titles. The Rabbinical Council of America also opposes women serving as clergy.

Prior to entering Yeshivat Maharat, Kohane worked in various roles at Jewish organizations in Northern California. In 2013, she was fired from serving as director of the San Francisco federation’s Israel center after writing an essay criticizing the Jewish community’s focus on young adult engagement. In parallel to Yeshivat Maharat, she is pursuing a doctorate in organizational psychology.

“Combining Jewish learning and community work has been central to my life since very early on,” Kohane said in the news release. “And I’m extremely honored and excited to begin the New Year as Rosh Kehila of this vibrant shul.”

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