“New” versus “Groundbreaking”

yeshivat maharat

post by Jessica

The Times of Israel recently posted a beautiful article about the upcoming Maharat graduates (we posted the article to the RR facebook – it’s here, if you’re interested). It takes the time to profile each of the graduates and talks a little about the opportunities they face. Plus, the nice pictures are awesome. Just this past Shabbat, the Chicago Tribune ran a great piece about Rachel Kohl Finegold, who was hired by Congregation Shaar HaShomayim in Montreal. Both pieces, while appropriately realistic, were also celebratory.

As with a lot of news, sometimes it’s good to ask “Is this worth all the fuss?” After all, maybe this is just my friend Rachel (we were congregants of hers in Chicago) taking on a new job. As the Tribune points out, Rabbi Lopatin hired Rachel in 2007, before there even was a Maharat program.

So, what’s new? What’s groundbreaking?

Without the opportunity for recognition, some women have gone elsewhere. Finegold has watched friends abandon rabbinical callings to become teachers, secular lawyers or CEOs instead.

“How sad is that for the Jewish world to lose a leader?” Finegold said. Not to mention, those women still feel the sting when they walk into the shul on Shabbat, she said.

“Women are Ph.D.s, CEOs and running for president and then they have to bifurcate their identity when walking into a synagogue where they don’t feel like full participants,” Finegold said. “That can be hard. When women participate in every other area of their lives, this feels like a glaring omission.”

The groundbreaking part? The way in which Maharat is trying to address this issue. It’s the first time that Orthodox Jewish women have been trained on the model of Orthodox rabbis, deliberately, in an institutional setting, not just one-on-one. Given the way Orthodoxy has been struggling with this place of women, it’s a very big deal.

As a society, we value training and credentials. Sure, there are stories of this teacher or that prominent person in the community who is self-made, without education, but most of the time, we look for the qualifications, something that tells us, yes, this person knows what he or she is talking about. Even in my own program, when a friend and I got down about some of the course work, I called it our “entry fee” – things we have to get through to gain the degree. And once we have the degree (in not very long for me), it opens a world of possibility.

The kind of training these women are receiving will prepare them to be leaders of the community in a way that we haven’t had in the Orthodox community. The value (and controversy) of having this kind of institution is that it legitimates women’s leadership in a way that it hasn’t been in Orthodoxy. So, the answer? No, this is way more than just Rachel getting a new job. We’re seeing something new in the community – not just one woman here or there, but a real chance for a place – and a career path. At the end of the Tribune article, they talk about Shayna Lopatin (age 12) seeing Rachel as a role model. And that’s something that’s also groundbreaking.

It won’t be easy. We’re going to be “groundbreaking” for a while. There’s a reason we use that term – the word connotes moving earth! There are the myriad issues in our own community, not the least of which is what, exactly, these women will end up calling themselves (the school is granting Maharat). And we know from the experience of the liberal denominations that even once there are women rabbis, the issues don’t end. I don’t think we even know yet, exactly, what it will be like in the future. Just by doing what they’re doing, they’re already changing the landscape. For what I mean, see a piece written by another friend for the Lilith Blog – Rabbis in Red Lipstick.

There’ll be more new, old, unchanging, ever changing issues.

But for now – I’m so immensely happy for and proud of the three graduates, and can’t wait to see what happens next.

Why (not) Pardes?

Pardes Logo – Post by Melissa

Since moving to Israel nearly nine months ago, I cannot count the number of times I have had the following conversation with people I meet once it has been established that I am learning at Nishmat….

NewPerson: And your husband? What is he doing this year?

Me: He is learning at Pardes.

NewPerson: Why aren’t you also at Pardes?

The answer is simultaneously incredibly simple and incredibly complex: Nishmat was the right fit for me for this year. I wrote about it when I first posted that I was coming here, so I won’t get into all those details again now. However, I have felt all year that I could have been just as happy at Pardes, and I would have grown just as much – though perhaps in slightly different ways and speeds.

On the surface level, the two institutions appear so very different from one another. Nishmat is an Orthodox women’s midrasha and Pardes is a pluralistic co-ed yeshiva. But realistically they are both serious places of learning with a diverse faculty and student body, where students learn Gemara, Tanach, and Jewish thought. Both are places where “young adults” take a year (or more) out of their lives in order to learn more Jewish text and explore the land of Israel.

While I’m on the more “liberal” end of the spectrum at Nishmat and more “traditional” end of the spectrum at Pardes, I am definitely on the spectrum in both places and love the different conversations and learning that come from that. (I use quotes there because I’m not really sure how to define it and that seems a good option without getting into too many labels, which you know I am not into!)

I have friends from both places and can speak about anything with any of them – from obscure things in the Gemara to the bizarre thing I saw in the shuk. Yes, some of those friends are guys and/or future rabbis of both genders and all denominations at Pardes, but that only adds to the experience. Its nice to interact with people who bring a different perspective to the table. Not that it doesn’t happen at Nishmat too (after all, my “super chevruta” this year is a 19 year old who made aliyah on her own last summer but more about her later), but its on an even larger level at Pardes.

So as this year started to wind down and I had to make my plans for next year, one thing really stood out to me. Why (not) Pardes? I knew I wanted to continue learning full time for the next year (and beyond), so I needed to be someplace with serious learning for a 30 year old English speaking woman, and I knew I wanted more Gemara. With those factors, plus what I know about the amazing community that is Pardes, it became clear that there was only one right choice. I spoke with some of our friends there and got more excited about the possibilities that would await me, and then broached the topic with my mentor who also agreed that for what I wanted, it is really the best option here in Jerusalem, and I applied.

And I am now happy to say that next year I will be joining the Pardes community, not as a wife or a Monday night seder attendee, but as a student.

M & D learn together on Monday nights at Pardes already, and are excited to do it more next year!

M & D learn together on Monday nights at Pardes already, and are excited to do it more next year!

Around Our House

In honor of our new look, just some fun little tidbits from around our house:

After R talked about textual difficulties between versions of the Yerushalmi:

Jessica: There we go! We don’t argue, we have girsa issues!

At the beginning of the school year:

R: You know you’re going to the right school when you get cool points for having borrowed your wife’s Mishna Berura for class

At Shabbat dinner with R’s chevruta:

Me: I end up getting 30 minutes of backstory to explain the puns.
Chevruta: I feel your pain, I’m there when he makes the puns.

In my Medieval Jewry class:

Professor: I thought about bringing my [medieval] Kabbalistic sex manual, but decided that would be too much.
Student: Oh man, that sounds like fun!

A friend, after a management class:

Friend: I met my friend for coffee the other day, and she’s having trouble at her job. I was able to give her advice, and know what I was talking about. GRAD SCHOOL WORKS! *high five*

Leaping forward or left in the dust…

The Sharansky Plan features a proposed permanent egalitarian space in the Robinson’s Arch area. This is what it would look like. (photo credit: JTA) {Post by Melissa}

I have had many questions recently about my feelings about the proposed and so-called “Sharansky Plan” to fix the issues of davening spaces at the kotel and to make it more accessible to all Jews. I’ve been hesitant to share what I think because I am very torn, but I like to share my opinions when they are requested, so I’ll do my best to pull apart my conflicting viewpoints.

To start with, I have to commend Natan Sharansky for stepping up to the plate on this one. I know it can’t be easy to be in his position, but this is a big step forward and shifting the realities of the kotel as a space for all Jews. His plan to expand Robinson’s Arch to be a continuous part of the kotel plaza and with full access to the public is brilliant. This is more than a trichitza – it is a new space for egalitarian Jewry to daven in a way which is meaningful and consistent. I think it is amazing that the plan has been endorsed by American Jewry across the spectrum and accepted by Women of the Wall. There are many logistical issues to be sorted through, but if it comes together, it will be a huge step forward for egalitarian Jews.

That said, it is a step backward for me and other women who hope for the ability to sing and dance and pray aloud at the kotel who are not egalitarian.

While it is hard to say if the kotel police will arrest women for praying aloud at the kotel when not wearing tallitot and who are not affiliated with Women of the Wall, the precedent has been set and this plan does nothing to counter that. The mechitza section of the kotel will essentially remain a Charedi synogauge, and the newly expanded egalitarian section will be governed by the Jewish Agency.

Where does that leave Modern Orthodox Jewish women who are looking for women’s tefillah? Where does that leave all the Orthodox supporters of Women of the Wall? Where does that leave seminary girls who want to sing and dance and celebrate together in the holy space? Where does that leave a non-egalitarian woman who wears a talit or wants to say kaddish for a loved one?

From what I can see, it leaves us standing in silence in the minuscule women’s section – not exactly the big win for everyone that many would like to believe.

So while I want to celebrate the (potential) leap forward for my egalitarian friends and celebrate the liberation of part of the kotel from Charedization, I can’t help but be saddened that they have left their fellow supporters of women’s tefillah at the kotel in the dust.

The women's section remains that that small shady area between the brownish mechitza wall and the white tarp/bridge. (Photo by Melissa)

The women’s section remains that that small shady area between the brownish mechitza wall and the white tarp/bridge. — And anyone who wants to claim Kol Isha as the reason, look at this photo and tell me you *must* daven close enough to the women’s section to hear us. (Photo by Melissa)

Melissa is a Wrap Star!

Post by Melissa

Post by Melissa

One of our new favorite blogs is Wrapunzel – a great resource for hair covering ideas and inspiration, and one of the regular features is interviews and photos of women who cover in different ways.

I was honored to be interviewed and featured as this week’s lady wrap-star so be sure to hop on over and check it out!

Andrea (the princess Wrapunzel herself) asked some great questions for the interview, and I did my best to give thoughtful and insightful answers. There are also lots of fun photos for your viewing pleasure. :)

Why is this year different from all other years?

Post by Melissa

If I added a fifth question to the seder this year it would have been: Why is this year different from all other years?

The simple answer is of course – because we’re in Israel! But that is only the tip of the iceberg, it runs so much greater than that and I hope I can find the words to convey it.

(I apologize in advance, but I simply can’t translate all the Hebrew words in this post. I think those who don’t understand will likely be able to get the jist without it, and if you really get stuck, feel free to ask in the comments.)

The uniqueness of the year started before Pesach even started, actually. We got out of school a whole week before Pesach! Presumably it is so other girls in the midrasha could go home and help their families to clean, but for most of us over-seas girls it meant a week of vacation – basically spring break. I spent that week working a lot and taking some time to relax and see my husband, who also had the week off. We did run errands which we had been putting off until we had time and dealt with assorted apartment things, but we didn’t really clean our place until the last day and we were totally fine. One small benefit of living in a shoebox I suppose!

Also, having spent the past month leading up to Pesach learning about various laws and customs (including a fabulous mock seder) I was in the mindset already and excited for the chag  to start and the feel was in the air. Products in the grocery stores were abundantly heckshered for Pesach, though the kitniyot/non-kitniyot distinctions were not always so clear. Restaurants all over and shops in the shuk had up new teudot. No one could deny the impending holiday!

Then it was seder night! We were caught off guard with the davening  of Hallel out loud at aravit/maariv, but relished the unique opportunity before heading off to our hosts home. We were surprised to realize it was just his family, his in-laws from America, and two other Pardes students. Not only was it a small group, it was a very well educated group and we went through the entire hagaddah in Hebrew, reading not quickly but not slowly, moving right along, with a few questions and good discussions, and even checking in the Gemara for the language of one mishna which we weren’t sure was the original language. (A far cry from my childhood of reading the Maxwell House haggadah in English, with just my grandfather (z”l) and me reading the segments after dinner to ourselves.)

At the end of the seder we approached the famous line “l’shana haba b’Yerushalim” and rather than end there as is so often the case, we really put the emphasis on the last word: ha’bnuya. Remining ourselves that while we are in Jerusalem this year, we want to be in a “rebuilt” Jerusalem next year – one with the Beit HaMikdash standing and the return of the Korban Pesach. After that, we sang songs (again, all in Hebrew) and then we were introduced to a lovely family tradition which we are going to keep for ourselves – singing Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem. It was a truly special moment to stand together in an apartment in Jerusalem singing Hatikva and celebrating the freedom we have today.

The next key difference was something I never expected to write here. I ate kitniyot at home. (See this post for my past views on this topic.)  I still hold strong to my familial roots and minhagim, but somehow, this year in Israel I felt it was time to test the waters. I initially pondered eating kitniyot because I have basically become a vegetarian again, with the general goal of being MOoShY again (meat only on Shabbat and Yom Tov) and hummus has become a staple source of protein for me. I knew I wanted to be functional and not make myself sick as I have in years past, so I started there. But I as thought about it more, I decided that if I was going to do it, I would do the whole thing, then I would have an experience to base my future decision off of. To paraphrase a rabbi friend: before you decide not to do something, you should do it for a year  – so this was my year of kitniyot. And I’m surprised to share that it was oddly not as weird as I expected and it still felt 100% like Pesach. I actually joked around that I was going to write a children’s book entitled: How the Rice Cake Saved Passover.*  (Let’s be honest. It could still happen, so just remember you saw it here first!) I only ate matzah at the chag/Shabbat meals and otherwise ate a lot of rice/rice cakes and veggies with hummus and tahina. It was a lovely experience and I look forward to repeating (and refining) it next year.

We relished being able to be home and not having to worry about missing work or school, and the strains that has put on us in years past. We had nowhere to be, and nothing to do but enjoy Pesach. Unfortunately between D and I, one of us was sick all week so we did not get to enjoy the country in the way we hoped to, but instead just spent a lot of time relaxing together and thinking about the fun things we can do in the summer and next year.

This year was truly a special Pesach experience. Beyond what I’ve described, there was just something in the air which made it a really amazing moment. Perhaps after next Pesach, I will be able to describe it better but for now, we will resume our chametz eating and keep praying that l’shana haba b’Yerushalyim ha’bnuya.

*Copyright Melissa Scholten-Gutierrez, April 2013.

A different kind of holy water

Photo from tumblr – Post by Melissa

Being in Israel, the prayers for rain feel so much more powerful and connected than they are in the US.

They are timed here differently to perfectly coincide with the holidays (and people’s travels home from Jerusalem after Sukkot during the Temple Era when people made the great pilgrimage on foot) and the agricultural seasons in Israel.

They have a deeper meaning as everyone is aware of the water crisis here in the desert. While people may be annoyed with days of rain, they are always also very excited and recognize its critical importance. People actually discuss the water levels of the Kinneret (The Sea of Galilee, our largest source of water) on the street and around Shabbat tables, and it even has its own twitter account.

We noticed the first major rains came right around the start of the davening (praying) changes in the fall, and now with spring upon us, people have been debating when the rains would end. Many people said that because it had been so long since our last rain storm we were done. Others put their faith in the fact that we have another week or so to ask for rain, so we were due for one last storm.

Apparently, Hashem is paying attention to our “local calls,” because we had a nice bit of rain right before Pesach (and another surprise shower this morning) – gives a whole new meaning to holy water!