Orthodox shul takes first step to hiring female clergy


In what would be an unprecedented move among Orthodox synagogues in Los Angeles, Congregation B’nai David-Judea plans to hire a woman clergy member by September 2015. The development in America’s second-largest Jewish community marks the success of a controversial move by some liberal Modern Orthodox leaders that began five years ago in New York. 

As a start, B’nai David recently hired Alissa Newborn, 25, for a one-year “kehilla intern” position. Newborn is in her final year at the New York-based seminary Yeshivat Maharat and will complete her coursework from Los Angeles while interning at B’nai David.  

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, B’nai David’s spiritual leader, wrote in an email that Newborn’s internship will involve seven or eight Shabbatot over the course of the coming year, at which  she will address the full congregation and teach at various events with different demographic groups. In addition, Kanefsky said, she will shadow him in lifecycle events.

Upon graduation from her program, Newborn will earn the title of “maharat,” an acronym for manhiga hilchatit ruchanit toranit — female leader of Jewish law, spirit and Torah.

In a telephone interview Kanefsky said that, assuming Newborn’s internship goes well and the congregation benefits from the presence of a female religious leader, the synagogue’s board will put together a list of candidates and raise money for a permanent position for a female clergy member.

Kanefsky said he recognizes that the move could be controversial, and clarified that the congregation will not call the new clergy member “rabbi,” in part because of communal politics and in part because the Orthodox women in the eventual pool of candidates under consideration will not have been ordained with that title. The synagogue’s leadership, he said, will work to find an agreeable title.

“Though we are still thinking through issues of title, we know that the title won’t be ‘rabbi,’ ” Kanefsky said. “The fact that the title won’t be ‘rabbi’ has, I think, allayed the primary concern.” 

Kanefsky hopes that B’nai David’s decision about the title will help avoid a rift in the city’s Orthodox community. Although he said, “It is very arguable that conferring the term ‘rabbi’ upon a woman violates no halachic [Jewish legal] lines,” he believes that such a move would ultimately set back the effort to bring female clergy into the Orthodox mainstream. 

“The best way to derail a good idea is by moving too far, too fast,” Kanefsky said. “If we want to continue advancing women’s participation in communal leadership, we have to have common communal sense.”

B’nai David’s announcement signifies the progress of a push within the liberal wing of Orthodox Judaism to ordain women as clergy within the guidelines of halacha, or Jewish law. The leader of the maharat movement is Rabbi Avi Weiss, a boundary-pushing activist rabbi in New York who leads the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, and founded Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the all-female Yeshivat Maharat, the only Orthodox institution in the world with a female ordination program. 

Weiss also created the label “Open Orthodoxy” to describe the relatively liberal brand of observant Judaism he practices. Before coming to L.A. in 1996, Kanefsky served under Weiss at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale for six years.

The women’s yeshiva has placed five of its graduates and eight of its current students, including Newborn, in jobs and internships at eight Orthodox synagogues in the United States and one in Montreal. The short list includes Weiss’ synagogue in New York; Bais Abraham in St. Louis; the National Synagogue in Washington, D.C.; and Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley.

“We are living in an era in which Orthodox women are making enormous strides in terms of their scholarship [and] their communal leadership, and I think B’nai David has a kind of a small historical responsibility to play a role in advancing this exciting development,” Kanefsky said.

The effort within Weiss’ wing of Orthodoxy to include women as clergy has laid bare a stark divide between traditional Orthodox communities and the more liberal Modern Orthodox ones. The Reform movement officially began ordaining women rabbis in 1972, and the Conservative movement has ordained women since 1985. 

Mimi Feigelsohn, a lecturer at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, received Orthodox ordination from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach in 1994, but that was a rare case — female ordination is not permitted by the vast majority of Orthodox authorities. 

In 2009, Weiss ordained Sara Hurwitz with the maharat title, a term created in part as an attempt to avoid too much ire at bestowing the title of “rabbi” on a woman. Hurwitz is now the dean of Yeshivat Maharat. 

In 2010, when Weiss and Hurwitz agreed to change her title to “rabba” while she was at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, the condemnation was immediate; the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) said in a statement that it “cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of their title.” 

The RCA republished that same press release in May 2013, when Yeshivat Maharat announced the graduation of its first three graduates.

In 2010, Agudath Israel of America, another Orthodox umbrella group, issued a statement that said, “any congregation with a woman in such a position cannot call itself Orthodox,” regardless of the title. Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the group, wrote to the Journal on Sept. 8 that Agudath Israel’s position has not changed since the statement. 

In an Oct. 2013 opinion piece published in Haaretz, Shafran wrote that the Open Orthodoxy movement has committed a “violation of truth in advertising” in calling itself Orthodox, and that it would be more honest for “the new Jewish movement [to] just append itself to the already existing one that shares its ideals,” referring to the Conservative movement.

Although the number of Orthodox synagogues and institutions showing interest in hiring graduates and interns from Yeshivat Maharat indicates that the movement is gradually gaining favor, the opposition expressed by the RCA and Agudath Israel is currently the position held, or at least practiced, by most Modern Orthodox congregations. 

As of press time, Rabbi Avrohom Union, the rabbinic administrator of the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), did not respond to an email asking for comment.

Kanefsky said that although a maharat candidate may be the most likely to fill the potential B’nai David position, the eventual hire will not need to be ordained, “if she has the necessary scholarship and leadership skills.” He hopes that a woman clergy member would provide a source of comfort and guidance for female synagogue members who “have hesitated over the many past years” to bring certain sensitive personal issues to him or another male rabbi for guidance, including, he said, mother-daughter issues.

“What would I know about mother-daughter things?” Kanefsky asked rhetorically.

Board member Gail Katz, sharing Kanefsky’s enthusiasm, said that other Orthodox synagogues that have hired female clergy have set a precedent, not just in terms of incorporating female clergy into the religious leadership, but also of maintaining good standing within their larger community.

 “Other communities have done it incredibly successfully and we plan to model those communities,” Katz said.

Hurwitz, speaking to the Journal from New York, said Yeshivat Maharat wants to “help the Orthodox community understand that it [ordaining women] is [halachically] permissible and something whose time has come.”

The only woman in the world to carry the title of “rabba,” Hurwitz said she feels women in official roles of religious leadership offer more than just counsel for women on sensitive issues like  laws of family purity. Placing females in positions of legal guidance, for example, Hurwitz said, will also inspire women in the community to become more engaged in religious and synagogue life.

“Having a woman in partnership with men is becoming a necessary part of Jewish communal life,” she said.

Hurwitz was raised in a traditional Jewish home in South Africa, and when her family moved to Florida, they became more observant. Even as a child, Hurwitz knew she wanted to become a member of the clergy but didn’t know how that might be realized within the Orthodox community.

Asked whether she ever considered pursuing the Conservative movement’s rabbinical ordination, Hurwitz said she has always felt most comfortable following the Orthodox traditions. And once Weiss agreed to ordain her as maharat and then as rabba, she found herself at the genesis of a major change.

“[It’s] much more exciting to be able to push the boundaries to include women as religious authorities,” Hurwitz said.

Newborn, 25, was raised in Redondo Beach, and her mother, Rabbi Didi Thomas, leads Temple Emet, a Reform synagogue that meets in Rancho Palos Verdes. Newborn moved with her husband back to Los Angeles this summer. 

Raised in a what she called a “Reformadox” home — she kept kosher and viewed the Torah as written by God — Newborn said that once she branched out into other religious environments, she wanted to be a part of the Orthodox world.

“I always considered myself a spiritually observant, religious Jew, and I found my place in the Modern Orthodox community,” she said. With a love for both pastoral care and halachic learning, Newborn views the maharat role as allowing her to fuse those interests within a context of Orthodox leadership.

“I always knew that I wanted to do the work of serving the Jewish community and serving God, and I’m blessed that maharat exists in my lifetime,” she said.

“This is a historic part of the evolution of the Modern Orthodox movement, and I feel very blessed and honored to be a part of it.”

Kanefsky, who will be deeply involved in the eventual selection process, said that whichever woman B’nai David hires will have a similar role to a synagogue’s male assistant rabbi.

“The woman that we hire will be able to bring everything that a male assistant rabbi could bring,” Kanefsky said. “Plus more.”

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