My Maharat Life

Learning in yeshiva last year (Photo: Uriel Heilman, JTA)

I am a future Maharat.

I am a wife and a mother. A sister and a daughter. A friend. A social worker. A writer.

I am a lover of Torah and Judaism. Of Jews and the Jewish community.

I am learning Isur v’Heter and Orach Chayim. I am learning Masechet Ketubot, practical rabbinics, and pastoral Torah.

I am learning a book of Nach and a perek of Gemara as a part of the #womenleadersfortorah siyyum on Tanach and Gemara.

I am filled with hakarat hatov to JLIC, Nishmat, and Pardes for providing me with strong Orthodox women Torah teachers, and to each of those women individually for their leadership, scholarship, and mentorship. Also, to my primary mentors – women who happen to be rebbetzins but are learned leaders in their own right.

I am a rabbinic intern at The Center for Jewish Living at JCC Manhattan and I get to spend time helping infuse Judaism into people’s lives in real and practical and tangible ways across the lifespan.

I am passionate about working in diverse Jewish communities and in helping people engage their Judaism. I am an Orthodox Jew (without any modifiers). I am no less an Orthodox woman or a Jewish communal leader because of my desire to combine them.

I cannot speak for any of my colleagues at Yeshivat Maharat, or any other institution training Orthodox women for leadership positions. I can only speak for myself. And for me, being at Yeshivat Maharat makes it possible to live my dreams while also being true to who I am.

This is my Maharat life.
I heard my call and I am here. Hineni.

Continually opting in to Orthodoxy

There has been a lot of talk online over the past few months about Orthodox Feminism – ranging from how it is not possible, to how oppressed we are, to why we stay Orthodox. The posts on the latter topic seem to come mostly from women who grew up within the structure of Halacha that Orthodoxy provides, and “don’t know what they’re missing” in more liberal streams where egalitarianism reigns along with the thoughts of our oppression.

Well, I know “what I’m missing” and I’m still staying Orthodox.

I grew up Conservative. I loved wearing a kippa and tallit, laying tefillin with the minyan on Sunday mornings before teaching Hebrew School, serving as shaliach tzibur, and leyning. (I was good at leading and leyning too.) I started keeping Shabbat and Kashrut as a Conservative Jew. I started dressing in a tzniut way as a Conservative Jew. I got married and started covering my hair and keeping Taharat HaMishpacha as a Conservative Jew.

And yet, today, I am an Orthodox Jew.

I opted in to Orthodoxy for a variety of reasons, but they were my reasons and they still are. I was not coerced or strong armed in any way. I made a decision based on intellectual honesty and intuition. I am happy in Orthodoxy and do not feel oppressed or held down. In fact, I feel uplifted. I have had more exposure to learning and to text since becoming Orthodox. I have had more meaningful Shabbat and holiday meals, with richer conversations since becoming Orthodox. I engage in more mitzvot in my daily life since becoming Orthodox.

I opt in to Orthodoxy everyday.

So no, I can’t lead the entire service or serve as a witness and I don’t wear my tallit and tefillin anymore, but I still have a fulfilling and meaningful Jewish experience and won’t let anyone attempt to convince me otherwise.

One of Four, but All for One

I had the distinct honor to be at the kotel for Rosh Chodesh Sivan. At least, that is what I believed as I left my house that morning and wrote this on Facebook:

I believe that prayer is a communal mitzvah. I believe that Rosh Chodesh is a special time for women. I believe that women’s Rosh Chodesh tefilla is particularly powerful.

Honored to be able to back up my beliefs and join Women of the Wall on Rosh Chodesh Sivan….

Two days after Yom Yerushalyim and five days before Shavuot – ’tis the season to remember that this is everyone’s Jerusalem and everyone’s Torah.

But then I got there, and honor wasn’t one of the first words that came to mind.

I initially wrote a long and detailed post of the entirety of my experience that morning, but it is just that – one experience in thousands with all the emotions attached. I do not honestly believe that rehashing each of those moments adds something to the narrative of the day, nor will it help anyone move forward or reconcile the difficulties that it may have provoked. What I think I can add is a very unique viewpoint based on just a few moments and the take home message I’m trying to carry forward.

Photo by Noam Revkin Fenton – Post by Melissa

When I showed up at the kotel at 7:02am on Friday morning I could have been part of nearly any of the four groups that were there that day: those who praying at the kotel because that’s just their normative experience, those who were praying with Women of the Wall (WoW, a group of women who have held Rosh Chodesh services at the kotel for ~25 years with many of them wearing ritual garments), those who were praying with Women for the Wall (a new group started by women who do not feel the need for public prayers from women and/or the wearing of ritual garments at the kotel), and those who were actively protesting Women of the Wall.

As a visibly Dati Leumi (essentially Israeli/Zionist Modern Orthodox) woman, I moved relatively easily through the masses of religious men to get to the women’s side, and again through the masses of religious women to try and find where I was hoping to be. I said “slicha” (excuse me) and snaked my way through, but no one really paid any attention to me. I couldn’t find Women of the Wall amidst the thousands of people at the kotel, so I found one friend and we decided to pray Psukei d’Zimra together in the women’s section and hoped someone would text her with details on where we could find the group. That is when everything changed for me. You see, the friend I was with prays every morning wearing her tallit and tefillin – this is as much a part of her day and her religious experience as putting my head-covering on is for me. She donned her ritual garments and we prayed shoulder to shoulder, shuckling together through the psalms, and trying to focus on the words of our tefilla and not the stares and whispers around us. At one point, she identified the location of WoW so we decided to make our way over.

I took my friends hand to lead us out and keep us together. Immediately the girls who had moved out of my way before blocked my path.  Contrary to everything else I have seen reported about the women and girls, they were not all just davening peacefully. They may have been quieter and more subtle than the men, but they were hissing and spitting at us. They pointed, smirked, and took our photo. They yelled out that we were not Jewish and what we were doing was not Judaism, and many other things which I didn’t hear clearly and/or understand. We tried to stay focused and in the moment, quietly moving forward and towards our goal and out of their line of fire. [A few women did remark to my friend about her courage, bravery, and dedication (which she surely appreciated) and a few women approached us to ask where WoW was as they had also been unable to find the group.]

It was amazing to me that in a split second, the time it took to grasp my friend’s tefillin clad hand, I went from being perfectly acceptable, to a complete outsider. That in one moment, I went from being able to move about freely, to needing security personnel to protect me from those who wanted to hurt me. That in an instant I personally became the target of spit, water, eggs, curses, rocks, and even “the finger” as we drove away in the busses brought in to escort us out. Nothing about me changed from when I walked into the kotel plaza unnoticed to when I exited the Egged bus two hours later, and yet to a segment of the population my very being changed and made me an equal recipient of those actions. My heart still aches when I think about those sights and sounds, and I am still conflicted when I try to rectify the dichotomy in my head.

It is impossible to say how many people were at the kotel on Friday morning or how many were there for any of the four reasons I previously identified, but what I feel confident in saying is that on some level, the people who were there with any of these four groups want the same thing. We all want to be able to pray the same words of the same tradition in the same place. We are all looking to connect to God – we just have different ways of doing that. We have to find a way to use our common spiritual ground to create a common physical ground, even when we will never have a common practical religious ground. Deep down, we are all the same.

Rosh Chodesh Sivan falls just two days after Yom Yerushalyim, the day which commemorates and celebrates the Six Day War in 1967 in which Israel reclaimed Jerusalem (and so much more!) and provided access to the kotel and Old City after 19 years of it being locked up under Jordanian rule. I was there on Wednesday, singing and dancing to a band as thousands of people (mostly Dati Leumi) celebrated the ability to come to the kotel to pray. Rosh Chodesh Sivan is just five days before Shavuot, the day where we commemorate and celebrate receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai – man, woman, and child. Thousands will again descend on the kotel that morning after staying up all night learning to celebrate the greatest gift of all – Torah.  Three times in one week, thousands of people will have gathered at this holy site to pray and celebrate – each in their own way. (Yes, there were also those who will have been there neither celebrating nor praying, but they are the minority in the grand scheme and we cannot let them overtake the deeper and more meaningful connections which are at our fingertips.)

In retrospect and having stepped back from the intense emotions of the day, I have to say that I am again honored to have been there. There were thousands of people from across the Jewish spectrum gathered together in this holy space: women and men, young and old, those who made a conscious decision and those who were bussed there by their seminaries, those who believe in women’s tefillah groups and those who oppose them, those who prayed and those who protested, those who want a change at the kotel and those who support the status quo. But at the end of the day, they were all there because their Judaism is so important to them that they want to be sure they have a way to honor it publicly at only of the holiest places we can access.

I hope and pray that we can unite around that and not continue to let the nuances around it divide us.

“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.

Who is Lily Montagu?

Montagu

Lily Montagu – Post by Jessica

One of the nice things about being back in school, particularly in grad school, is that there is often the thrill of discovery. With the Non-Profit Management side of my degree, it’s often about some new technique or approach that I’m putting in my “bag of tricks” for later use. In the Jewish Studies program, it’s generally more intellectual, the kind of thing that’s like “wow, the world is more interesting than I thought.”

Those moments make all the late nights worth it. Because I was taking a LOT of Jewish Studies last semester, I needed paper topics. I was floundering for one in particular, until I asked a friend what he thought. He suggested someone named Lily Montagu. I needed to analyze a primary source, and apparently, she had written a memoir. As it turned out, she had written a lot of things.

Born in 1873 to a very wealthy Orthodox family, Lily decided early on that Orthodox Judaism as it currently stood had very little to offer her as a woman. With little access to religious texts, yet still with an interest in a personal religious experience, she began to create religious services that spoke to her, first in the form of a religious service ostensibly for children (although often attended by women), and then through services held by the Jewish Religious Union, who held additional services on Shabbat afternoon. For a long time, she continued to try to work within the system, but eventually, it became clear that they were outside the realm of Orthodoxy, and began, in earnest, to try to create a movement. Through her alliance with Claude Montefiore, they began to form congregations.

This was a very painful break for her personally, since her father rejected the idea of reform, and in his will, forbade her from using the money towards the cause. As the movement grew, however, she remained heavily involved, helping to create the World Union of Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), and even housing their headquarters in her home for many years, until they were moved to New York. She also regularly led services and spoke from the pulpit, with her address at the WUPJ conference in Berlin in 1928 the first time a woman had spoken from the pulpit in Germany. To this day, Liberal Judaism, the new name of the Jewish Religious Union, is still housed in The Montagu Center.

I found her story fascinating in general – but there were two aspects that made it even more interesting. First, the reasons she left Orthodoxy, and second, that her story is largely unknown and unstudied. Lily was given a secular education comparable to the non-Jews around her, while at the same time being denied access to Jewish texts. She saw the difference in what was offered to her brothers, and felt the injustice. This not only meant that she felt isolated from Judaism, but that her ways of thinking about religion were shaped by secular study rather than Jewish knowledge. Her language when discussing religion uses secular imagery more often than not; religion was used as a tool for personalizing secular values. That many women and men found this vision compelling speaks to the fact that this kind of education was common. But it also meant that, aside from her personal feelings of connection to Judaism, she was preaching a version of Judaism that was not compatible with Orthodoxy. It’s impossible to know what Lily would have done with a more rigorous Jewish education.

Still, why her story is largely unknown, even among liberal and progressive branches of Judaism? Ellen Umansky, until recently the only scholar who had studied her in depth, thinks that it might largely be the “fault” of Lily herself. Certain of her activities, such as preaching, were public. But many others, like her efforts to start the JRU and WUPJ were behind the scenes, and Lily deliberately described her own participation as non-essential. Umansky’s research, however, has unearthed evidence that she was often entirely instrumental in these efforts, both doing ground work and providing or gaining access to funding. That Lily’s attitude played better for the historians of the time is debatable – how would they have reacted if she had taken credit where the credit was due? Would there have been greater pushback? Or would it have just made it easier for historians of our time to understand where she fit in? The fact remains that, having grown up in a community connected to hers (both in South Africa and in Illinois), I had heard of Leo Baeck and of Samuel Montefiore, but not of Lily Montagu.

The little hidden gems of history. And hopefully, with a new book coming out about her, she’ll be a little less hidden than before.

Which identity has the most influence?

How do you define your identity? 

Does your feminism influence your Judaism, or does your Judaism influence your feminism?

These questions were posed by one of my mentors here in Jerusalem at a Shabbat lunch with a group of young women who are all trying to define our identities, and it really resonated with me and has stuck with me for months. (Especially with all the conversations which have been generated surrounding my not-so-recent post: Orthodox Feminist: Not an oxymoron.) I think the same thing could be said of many aspects of identity, activism, and engagement also, but I’m going to stay focused on the initial question because that is the one I have been ruminating on.

Personally, I don’t think I can separate them. I think they influence each other fairly equally. I cannot say that I am more a feminist than a Jew, nor that I am more a Jew than a feminist. Neither comes first and neither stands alone.

If I could separate them, I wouldn’t be the woman I am. I wouldn’t be learning at Nishmat this year, nor would I be exploring my avenues for future learning. I wouldn’t be writing this blog about the adventures and challenges of being married to a man who has decided to pursue the rabbinate. I would be trying to “redefine rebbetzin.”  I wouldn’t have the complex feelings about parenting and education I do. I wouldn’t seek out the kind of prayer spaces and people to learn with that I do. I wouldn’t be the woman I am proud to be.

As I sit here pondering this question (and have for months), I continuously find that if I attempt to make one more crucial than another my sense of self shifts. I can play around with the focus in other parts of my identity. In fact, I regularly move around amongst wife / sister / daughter / friend and social worker / writer / editor / marketer / educator freely. I think those are all important parts of my identity, but not as critical as being simultaneously a religious Jewish woman and a feminist. For some reason, I cannot disengage those two parts from being the joint core of who I am.

Despite the time spent thinking about this, I am no closer to having any resolution, so I would love to hear your insights….

Does one part of your identity inherently have to take on a higher and more prominent place, or is it possible that two pieces can hold equal weight in how you interact with the world around you?

Can Judaism and feminism equally influence our place in the world?

A Rebbetzin is not a Rabbi

I have been involved in a few conversations lately about a topic that really agitates me, so when I saw the premise used to prove the exact opposite, I simply couldn’t not say my piece publicly any longer.

A Rebbetzin is not a female Rabbi. Sorry Orthodox Jewry, but its just not reality.

While many Rebbetzins or Rabbanits  (not getting into the semantics on this one now, been there done that) do serve as leaders in their communities, many do not. While some have a high level of education, some do not. And on the flip side, while some women who want to be leaders in the community marry Rabbis, others do not. The premise is that all women who want to lead have to marry Rabbis, and that all Rabbis have to marry women who want to be leaders. This is not realistic and it is not fair.

In this recent opinion piece by Rabbi Dan Friedman posted on The Jewish Week, the author uses this assumption to reach a conclusion I agree with, I just wish I could agree with his process more. The fact of the matter is that there are indeed women serving in great leadership roles in the Orthodox world, there are women who are certified by programs in Israel and America to be religious/halachic leaders and there are those who have stepped up without a formal program backing them. That is a great thing to recognize and to share widely. The problem begins when we believe that reassigning a title or suggesting that one method should be good enough for everyone will be the solution. Its not.

For some women, that is the level of religious and communal leadership that works for them. However, that it is good for a portion of the population doesn’t inherently mean that it is good for everyone. We have to allow women to find ways to lead that are personally meaningful – be it a a Rebbetzin, Jewish educator, communal worker, yoetzet halacha, or full fledged member of the clergy*.

We no longer tell girls who dream of working in the medical profession than being a nurse is “close enough” to being a doctor, so why should those who dream of working in the religious world settle for “close enough”? If women are able to learn at the level of men, why limit their professional advancement to who they marry?

*I said clergy so as to leave the semantics question out of it. I don’t think what the title is matters as much as giving women formal training to serve in these functions.