Finding one word to describe Mijal Bitton’s work is a fruitless endeavor. She’s a thought leader, Torah scholar, Rosh Kehilla (head of congregation), academic, teacher and mother. But for the fast-talking, cerebral 28-year-old, all her efforts are to answer the question, “What are some of the big ideas that shape Jewish life in 2018?”
Born in Argentina and raised in the United States from the age of 12, the New York University doctoral candidate is currently completing a dissertation on the construction of communities among Sephardic Jewry. In addition to that, as a faculty member and fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, she travels around the U.S. and Israel lecturing and participating in multiple research teams exploring the challenges facing American Jews and Israel, as well as what ethical leadership looks like in 2018.
But for Bitton, the answers to the questions her research poses can never be abstract. “I want to be that public intellectual — that applied scholar — who takes those ideas and asks themselves: ‘What can I do to make our community better?’”
And for proof of that, there’s no need to look further than the Downtown Minyan (“traditional halachik with an egalitarian aesthetic”) she helped co-found in 2016 that is housed out of The Bronfman Center at NYU. At the time Bitton and her co-founders, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna and Gabriel Slamovits, didn’t know if it would last a month. Now, two years later, the synagogue is rapidly growing out of its downtown Manhattan space and looking for a new place to house their growing community. It is here, Bitton says, that they were given the opportunity—and challenge—to create a community that reflects their values.
“It’s a moment I hope more Jewish leaders and professionals will have,” she said, “Of being encouraged to dream.”
At the Minyan, Bitton breaks the Orthodox synagogue-glass ceiling, serving as Rosh Kehilla (spiritual leader), giving the weekly sermon, teaching weekly Torah classes and assisting in pastoral and community counseling. “Our mission is to build a community in which we all work together to bridge the gap between our values and our lives,” she said. “And the values that guide us are the aspiration to be intellectually engaging, spiritually uplifting and outward looking.”
Their shabbat dinners are used as an opportunity to engage with issues the community is passionate about. During the debate around the DACA act, they invited students who were affected by the issue on a personal level to share their stories. They have also partnered with Knock Knock Give a Sock (a homeless charity) to host several Shabbat dinners for community members and individuals experiencing homelessness. “When we say being engaged with the world, we try to mean it and try to reflect those values.”
“I want to be that public intellectual — that applied scholar — who takes those ideas and asks themselves: ‘What can I do to make our community better?’”
Finding a way to include a multiplicity of voices in her teachings and ensuring everyone feels included as a student is of utmost importance. ”I believe in Torah learning as this extensive conversation between people, ideas and texts.” She said, “In a way that makes Torah not only relevant, but an urgent necessity for our time. There’s something sacred about that conversation and about our ability to expand who belongs in that conversation.” In her weekly Torah classes, she gets to satisfy her love for learning Torah, and find a way to embody it. “Torah should not be something that stays within the four walls of shul, or the beit midrash (house of study),” she said. But rather, she hopes, informs her students’ lives, values and practices.
Though she laments the politicization of women’s roles within halachik Judaism, Bitton leads by example. “Some community members have come to me saying, ‘Wow. That’s the first time I’ve heard a women teach Torah. But we don’t emphasize the fact that there is a women teaching. Because we believe it shouldn’t be the exception, but rather the norm.”
“We believe it shouldn’t be the exception, but rather the norm.”
She hopes more communities will follow suit. “Covenantal living will only be enriched when we find a way to include more voices,” she says.
Her hopes for the future? To expand her teaching beyond the physical space and translate it to books as well as make use of rising technology to find new ways to disseminate her work. All this while furthering her own Torah learning and ensuring it remains current and a “source of strength, creativity and inspiration.”
It is Bitton’s fusion of talent, energy, interests and hard work that allows her to truly personify the Talmudic idiom “lo bashamayim hi,” the Torah is not in heaven, but rather integrated and intertwined fully in our lives. And perhaps it is this phrase, not a single word, that so aptly depicts Bitton’s philosophy and work.
Globe hopper: Bitton has lived in five countries and English is her third language. She was born in Argentina and still keeps the Spanish spelling of her name.