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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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.

Getting to, and through, shloshim

You may have noticed the serious lack of posts from me over the past few months, and well, there is in fact a reason: I’ve been getting to and thus inevitably through shloshim. What follows is a bit of a recount of the past few months, more for myself than anyone else, but on the off chance anyone else can get solace from it now or in the future, I’m going to post it.

Post by Melissa – In memory of her beloved mommie, Joanne (Yocheved bat Yisrael v’Esther)

May was just a busy month, and then I got excited about the Israeli Presidential Conference and anticipated multiple posts afterwards. Unfortunately, right at that time (early June), I got the initial news that my mother, my best friend, and one of the most healthy and stoic women I know had become suddenly ill enough that she’d made multiple trips to the doctor, urgent care, and ER. That threw me for quite a loop. Then I started my summer learning and attempting to balance that, working, and dealing with the various life in Israel tasks at hand, and wishing I was in CA with my parents I didn’t have much time left for blogging – and amidst all that I got two more pieces of news (1) I was pregnant (still am, Thank God) and (2) my mom had a rare cancer. As time progressed they decided it wasn’t what they thought it was, it was maybe one of two other cancers, and then in early August (the same day as my 8 week ultrasound) my beloved mommie found out that she in fact had Stage 4 Metastatic Sarcomatoid Carcinoma, as identified by the National Cancer Institute. She was told there was no good treatment options as anything would cause more pain (this was also verified by a second opinion), that she would not recover from her paralysis (waist down), and that she should enjoy the next 6-12 months with her family while receiving hospice care to reduce the pain.

I spoke to her on the phone that day (Wednesday in America) and she was optimistic about enjoying this time and she and my dad told me about the various things in the works in order to make her life as good as possible for these last months. I called home a few times over the next few days and heard as her voice began to give out as the disease spread to her throat. I called home on Monday night, and she could only eek out a few phrases, but I did get a clear “I love you” and I’m so grateful for that, as it was one of (if not the) last thing/s she said.

Amidst all of this, we had booked a ticket for me to go out (my brother who was in TX at the time had been out already) in mid-August, however after the diagnosis, she began to deteriorate very quickly so we moved it up. A week after being told she was terminal and two days after I spoke with her for the last time, D and I arrived in CA to find her semi-comatose, not speaking, eyes closed, and finally accepting pain medication. I spent the last few days of her life by her bedside giving her her meds, holding her hand, and talking to her – alongside family and friends.

At Shabbat dinner, we said Kiddush and sang Shir Ha’maalot by her bedside as well, knowing those were things she always liked to participate in. I think in time, it will bring me some comfort that those were among the last sounds she heard, as she died roughly four hours later.

Birthday! (10/198?)

Birthday! (10/198?)

Two days later I stood amongst a large group of family and friends as we reminisced about her amazing life and shoveled dirt into her grave. For the week of shiva, my father, brother, and I were hardly ever alone. There was a constant stream of people visiting the house. However, I often found myself needing to get away from the crowd and hiding out in “my room” (not the room I ever actually lived in, but the room which possessed a few of my belongings over the years and where I stayed when I visited, though it now posses all of our books while we live in Israel). I leaned heavily upon a few friends who welcomed me into the dead parents society via email and in person to help me attempt to deal with this new reality I had no desire to engage in.

On Sunday morning when we walked around the block, my dad and I huddled together and cried. After everyone left, we looked at each other in awe — what did we do now? We tried to move on. Our worlds had been completely flipped upside down and we didnt really know what to do with ourselves. He did the mundane post-death tasks, and I stayed home and and tried to help do some stuff around the house. I couldn’t read, learn, or communicate with most people. I couldn’t clear my head or wrap my head around my new reality. Sitting at the house and watching TV, I waited for her commentary. My dad would do silly things and I expected her reactions. I kept waiting for her to walk in the door from work. By none of that happened. The hole in my heart remained wide open.

After a week, D and I came back to Israel and I had a new task: how to reintegrate into society and community when I was a fundamentally different person. Classes started right away, I had to put on a happy face, engage the new students, and reintegrate into my daily learning. I was completely overwhelmed by being in a communal space and forcing myself to “fake it til I make it.” Every time I walked out of my apartment, I knew I would have to face other people, and had a small panic attack.

The it was the chagim, and Rosh Hashana interrupted my shloshim a few days early. I couldn’t handle being in public still and only prayed in the minyan in the evenings, and we had small meals with friends. The liturgy was also particularly challenging, all the “who shall live and who shall die” stuff is pretty harsh when death is in the forefront of your mind.

Throughout those thirty days my dad and I spoke very often, both trying to figure out what life without “our person” looked like. For both of us, my mom was our best friend, our confidant, our go-to for life’s good and bad, she was our rock – having the person who is all of those things ripped from your life leaves you gasping for breath and unsure of your footing. But we both made it through, and are trying to take deep breaths and put one foot in front of each other, cherishing the days that are good and riding out the days that are bad.

Bat Mitzvah Weekend (07/1995)

I’m now another month later and I still don’t know how I actually make it through each day. I hope every night I will sleep and wake up at a normal hour, but often I wake up and cry in the middle of the night. I hope every day I will make it through the day without breaking down, but I often find myself very emotional. I say Kaddish at mincha daily, and sometimes I am able to say it all, and other days I lose my words and add to the tear stains on the pages of my siddur.

I tried to ignore my birthday recently because she always told me it was one of her favorite days of the year. I’m trying to ignore friends’ discussions of Halloween because it was her favorite holiday. I am unable to find words to write, despite people constantly encouraging me to do just that. I find myself drifting between activities, classes, and meetings trying to ignore the thoughts in my head. I periodically over schedule myself just so I don’t have to think, but then I can’t function the next day because thats simply not how I work. And every time I cry, I hear her words in my head “don’t cry baby, its just going to give you a headache and its not going to make anything better” – and she is so right.

MSW Graduation (12/2006)

MSW Graduation (12/2006)

One of my rabbis said to me recently that I am a human experiment, by experiencing both mourning and pregnancy simultaneously. My belated reaction is that I did not sign the consent form for this experiment and I want out. (Too bad it’s not an IRB approved study where that’s an option, huh?)

My mommie was my number one fan. I know she was so proud of all of my accomplishments thus far and only believed in the best for my future, so I’m going to do my best to be the woman she saw in me and to carry on some of her warmth, kindness, compassion, and generosity into my life. I know that her spirit lives in me and her smile shines out through mine.

Wedding Day (06/2009)

That said, this blog remains an important part of my life, but I will likely remain fairly silent on the blog for the rest of this year. I imagine there will be experiences which I will want to write about, but my primary focus needs to be on my personal journey through aveilut and pregnancy. (Which end in Elul/September and Adar II/March respectively.)

I appreciate all of the support and understanding which I know you will offer.

(I also apologize for any grammatical errors or typos, I’ve written this post in countless spurts and I just can’t proofread it.)

“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)

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.