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.

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Reflections and Gratitude

As those of you who have been reading our blog for some time know, we have all had pretty winding journeys. While we haven’t been nearly as prolific as we once were, this blog has been a great source of support on these journeys, and its still an important part of our lives.

Recently, Jessica and I were sitting together (I should have taken a picture!) at a panel discussion with rebbetzins in the field. They spoke so beautifully and touched on many things we have thought about and discussed over the years, and it profoundly reminded me of just how blessed we are to have the community which this blog has generated.

I am eternally grateful to all of you for reading along and for reaching out. Even if no one was reading, I would still write because its how I like to deal with my world, but knowing you are reading encourages me to actually post my musings.

(I keep making plans to post more, and it keeps not happening, but hopefully soon I’ll find a balance again.)

Its my birthday and I’ll blog if I want to

Post by Melissa

Post by Melissa

I’ve started to write a few blogs recently, but feel like its weird to just dive back in after my hiatus without saying hello and giving some closure. So, I figured what better day than my 32nd birthday to do just that!

I had a very difficult pregnancy, then a very intense labor and delivery, and then got to snuggle an adorable baby boy at the end of February. He is quite possibly the cutest giant tiny human on earth (and I’m not the only one who thinks so). At this point, I am planning on not posting his photo or many stories about him on the blog, though I do occasionally post it in semi-public places online, the blog is more public than I’m willing to make his life right now.

In June we left Israel as planned, just days before the kidnapping and the subsequent turmoil and war. It broke my heart to be in CA and not in Israel, but alas – it was what it was.

We mostly spent our summer in CA with my dad, learning Gemara, visiting people and places in San Diego, and getting ourselves reacclimated to life in America. After two years in Israel, it definitely took time to get used to customer service, not bagging our own groceries, and having to check for food being kosher.

Also this summer we had the unveiling of my mom’s tombstone and the whole family was together for that, which is always nice – though I hate it has to be for such sad reasons. We tried to balance the sadness of that by the joy of spending the time with the youngest member of the family and remembering the cycle of life.

We did take some time to sign our lease in NY and then visit our friends and family in Denver, reconnecting with a place that meant so much to us for so long. And we took some amazing family photos and new headshots (as seen above) with our beloved wedding photographer/friend.

Our first Shabbat in our new community was my mom’s first Yarthzeit and yesterday was my first real Yizkor, so I’m now in a new phase post-aveilut. I’m trying to embrace all the things which reminded me of her and were too hard to deal with last year as ways of honoring her memory in the coming years. (This includes recognizing and celebrating birthdays, hence my acknowledging that in this post.)

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What now, you ask?

Well, we are finally living the dream.

D (who is now going by his Hebrew name, so shall hence forth be N as in Nachum) is now a first year student at Yeshivat Chovevi Torah (YCT).

I am also a first year student – at Yeshivat Mahara’t! (Surprise! Only not, right?)

When Jessica and I started this blog, N going to rabbinical school was the goal but it seemed far off, and then as life happened it kept getting pushed back – so its crazy to think that its finally happening. And that I’m doing it too.

Not surprisingly, having a high-needs baby and being in my first year at Yeshivat Mahara’t already keep my plate quite full. Yet, I find writing cathartic and good for processing my thoughts – so I’m hoping to post semi-frequently both here and on the JOFA blog, “The Torch,” but I make no promises on frequency or remembering to cross post the ones from JOFA.

I hope you all had a wonderful year, and a rejuvenating Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur. 🙂

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.

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)