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.)

Life is a journey, God is the guide

Today in my Chumash class, we were asked to think/write about how we view or relate to God as part of a discussion about revelation. I had to (sadly) admit to myself that I don’t really think about God on a regular basis, I have just internalized the relationship as a part of who I am and how I engage with the world. When I had to stop and think about it, I found myself caught up in a metaphor which I wanted to explore a bit more with you.

If life is a journey, then surely God is our guide and the Torah is the guidebook.

To expound it a bit more, Talmud is the sequel, Halacha is the “must see” lists, and commentaries are all the reviews and blogs which people write to distill their experiences.

Sometimes, the books are enough to keep the traveler going on a good path and having a fulfilling journey, but sometimes they leave one wandering, lost, or disconnected. Sometimes the traveler has to set aside the books, and talk personally to the guide. Sometimes a person on a journey has face the guide directly to get answers for the difficulties.

The guide is always there, even when a traveler forgets and gets caught up planning for themselves.  While one can pick the places they want to go from a book, they may be closed for renovations or generally disappointing. Meanwhile, the guide knows exactly where to go and can help weary travelers get out of these slumps – if only they would stop to ask and open up to the answer.

The traveler can’t get mad at the guide when it doesn’t work out, rather they have to slow down and be willing to open up to the answers. One has to be willing to give up control sometimes, and just trust that the guide knows what is best.

The guide is able to see the bigger picture of the journey, while the traveler is caught up in the day to day activities and the minutiae of the logistics.

While the guidebooks, “must see” lists, and reviews tell other people’s experiences, only the guide knows the individual traveler and what is best for their unique experience. The guide knows all the options, while the individual is limited to their minimal exposure to the books.

It may be hard for some of travelers (myself included) to embrace this, but it seems like the only way to truly get the most personally fulfilling journey possible is to find a balance between being self-directed with texts and giving up some control in connecting with the guide and allowing him to lead.

Quite simply, despite all of our best intentions as travelers, we can’t always rely on the texts to get us through our journey. We need a personal relationship with our illustrious guide, God, in order to maximize the experience of our journey. (And it doesn’t hurt to have good traveling companions either!)

 

{This blog has been cross-posted to These & Those, the Pardes student blog, which I help manage.)

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.

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*