A giant step for Orthodox women clergy


At Shabbat morning services at B’nai David-Judea Congregation (BDJ) on May 2, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky took an extra-long pause before beginning his drash, the weekly address to the congregation. It was more than just the usual wait for the gathering to settle into silence; it was Kanefsky taking a moment before making an important announcement to his congregation that, come August, its clergy would include a new “spiritual leadership” position. Alissa Thomas-Newborn, who has been serving BDJ for the past eight months as Kehilla intern, will become a member of the clergy of BDJ full time and will be addressed by a new title that Kanefsky and his synagogue board of trustees hope will convey her scholarship and the esteem of the community: Morateinu, “our teacher.” Thomas-Newborn will be the first woman to serve as an Orthodox clergy member in Los Angeles, and although she is not the first to do so — a handful have been named in the U.S., Canada and Israel — her hiring is considered a major step forward for women in Orthodox circles here.

“This was a decision that emanates from the deepest spirit of B’nai David-Judea,” Kanefsky said in his remarks, “from our determination to realize and to live out our most deeply held values; that we grow only richer and better when there are more voices in the holy conversation and more talented people teaching and leading. That Torah is the inheritance of all Israel, men and women, daughters and sons. And also that when we have the opportunity to shape our community into one that is more fair and more just, that opens doors rather than closes them, we take that opportunity, in the spirit of ta’asu hayashar v’hatov, ‘You shall do what is just and what is good.’ ”

The congregation stood as Thomas-Newborn crossed from the women’s side of the mechitzah (separation) to stand on the bimah, where she spoke of her excitement and her gratitude. When she returned to the women’s side, female congregants swept her up into congratulatory embraces and danced through the aisles. “I felt incredibly humbled and honored,” Thomas-Newborn said afterward. “Men and women shared their joy with me as we all greeted each other with ‘Mazel tov!’ Many women were crying, saying how grateful they were to have been present for this moment.”

In her new role, Thomas-Newborn will perform all spiritual leadership tasks permitted to women according to the Modern Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law. She will give drashes (sermons, given at BDJ from the bimah), provide pastoral care, meet with congregants, give shiurim (classes), officiate at lifecycle events, and consult on family purity and kashrut. In May, she will take her ordination exam at Yeshivat Maharat in New York, where she has been training. Maharat is an acronym for “manhiga hilchatit ruchanit Toranit” – female leader of Jewish law, spirit and Torah.

The background

Although women have served as rabbis in the Reform movement since the 1970s and the Conservative movement since the mid-1980s, Orthodox Judaism has traditionally resisted naming women to clergy positions. BDJ’s new hire doesn’t mean that all Orthodox synagogues will follow suit — it is likely to be considered a departure from traditional Orthodox norms, and even, by some, a violation of certain prohibitions on women holding positions of communal authority.

But Orthodox women are still blazing trails toward the goal of being recognized as rabbis. Two particularly noteworthy cases are Reb Mimi (Miriam Sara) Feigelson and Rabbi Haviva Ner-David. Feigelson, a regular at BDJ, was ordained in Israel by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach in 1994; she now works as mashpi’ah ruchanit (spiritual mentor) and lecturer of rabbinic literature and Chasidic thought at American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and is a doctoral candidate at the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Ner-David is the rabbinic director of Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body, and Soul on Kibbutz Hannaton in Israel, and online sources indicate that she received the equivalent of Orthodox ordination from Rabbi Aryeh Strikovsky of Tel-Aviv in 2006.

“Over the course of a generation and a half, the capacity for women to study anything and everything in Jewish learning has increased so dramatically that the question is, how do women who have studied put their passion and their knowledge into service for the Jewish community?” Kanefsky told the Jewish Journal in an interview. “This is one of the answers.”

“Women already held leadership positions in the community, and had the knowledge, but lacked the degree,” said Yaffa Epstein, who is also due to be ordained by Yeshivat Maharat next month. “I thought I’d never in my lifetime see women in synagogues as clergy, let alone be part of it. It was important for me to be part of this movement; the train was leaving the station, and I wanted to be on board.” Epstein recently spent a Shabbat as scholar-in-residence at BDJ and on May 4 was appointed Director of Education — North America for the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where she has been a teacher for years.

The title

Even in the few communities that are hiring women as Orthodox clergy, the issue of what to call them is complicated.

Although the all-women Yeshivat Maharat’s graduates are “ordained,” they are not called “rabbis.” Sara Hurwitz, the first woman ordained by Rabbi Avi Weiss, a well-known progressive Modern Orthodox leader and the founder of Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (where Kanefsky spent six years as associate rabbi), is currently dean of Yeshivat Maharat. She goes by “Rabba” and “Maharat,” but she’s the only one. Some Maharat graduates use the Maharat title as an honorific in conjunction with their job title. For instance, at Bais Abraham Congregation in St. Louis, Rori Picker Neiss’ email signature reads “Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, Director of Programming, Education, and Community Engagement.” At Kehilat Orach Eliezer in Manhattan, Dina Najman, who was ordained by Rabbi Daniel Sperber, is referred to as “Rosh Kehilah” (Head of Congregation).

In Israel, Jennie Rosenfeld, hired to work alongside Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, municipal chief rabbi in Efrat, is referred to as a manhiga ruchanit (spiritual adviser). At Riskin’s Ohr Torah Stone (slogan on its website: “Pioneering Modern Orthodox Solutions”), graduates of the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL), receive the title of Morat Hora’ah, meaning that they hold a license to decide on matters of Jewish law. Also in Israel, Nishmat’s The Jeanie Schottenstein Center for Advanced Jewish Study for Women trains Yoatzot Halacha (halakhic consultants) to be a resource for women on questions regarding marriage, sexuality and women’s health issues, but without the goal of ordination.

Morateinu Alissa Thomas-Newborn joins B’nai-David Judea Congregation’s clergy, a first for an Orthodox woman in Los Angeles.

The local response

BDJ’s congregation is an eclectic group, and within it there are varying ideas of how to define the “modern” in Modern Orthodox. Most would describe themselves as “modern,” with some daring to intone “progressive,” and others self-identifying as “more traditional.” But congregants expect BDJ to present them with new ideas and perspectives that may or may not gel with other more traditional and less-flexible Orthodox synagogues in the heavily Modern Orthodox neighborhood of Pico-Robertson.

“B’nai David walks that tightrope of wanting to stay identified as Orthodox and being a space for change,” said Barbara Wettstein, a member of BDJ since the late 1990s. “Rav Yosef looks for the opportunity to be inclusive of women in all kinds of ways. Alissa ended up as the intern, and she’s the right person. The timing is right now and, thankfully, we’re jumping on the chance.”

BDJ member Rachel Grose also sees a generational shift in attitudes about women’s leadership that influences how young girls perceive their possibilities. “Older women grew up with this idea of women’s spiritual leadership not even [being] a concept. To those who are over 30 and grew up with no access, this is like a miracle. But these girls are in the world of the contenders,” said the mother of three daughters, ages 8, 13 and 15, two of whom compete in the annual Chidon HaTanach, a worldwide Bible competition for high-school students. “They take text learning and Judaism very seriously and see a role for themselves in Jewish life.”

Rena Selya Cohen, a BDJ member and mother of two daughters, ages 8 and 11, said she “didn’t expect to get as emotional as I did” when Kanefsky made the announcement. “But all I could think about was my daughters, and all of our daughters, who could see and hear that, in the BDJ community, women’s Torah is valued just as much as men’s Torah. I used to have to say to our girls that they could do anything but hold a public Jewish clergy role. But now we can look for our spiritual leaders on both sides of the mechitzah.”

Although some BDJ members literally danced through the sanctuary in joy, not everyone who identifies as Orthodox is so enthused by the change. In 2013, after Yeshivat Maharat announced the ordination of its first graduates, the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America fired back with a strongly worded statement that it could “not accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title,” calling this move a “violation of our mesorah (tradition)” and that it “contradicts the norms of our community.”

Asked by the Jewish Journal about the potential impact that hiring Thomas-Newborn might have on the Modern Orthodox scene outside BDJ, Kanefsky said that he “remains hopeful and optimistic that even people who may feel this is the sort of thing that isn’t right for them personally can certainly see how it’s religiously valuable and good for others.”

“This is good not just for B’nai David, but for the whole community in Pico-Robertson,” BDJ President Marnin Weinreb said. “We have wonderful shuls and rabbeim [rabbis], we all co-sponsor events and go to simchas [celebrations] at different shuls. I hope this is an opportunity for people at other shuls to get to know Alissa, to learn from and connect with her.”

Other local Modern Orthodox rabbis did not respond to requests for comment. But some dissent within the larger community may be expected, even among some of those in the field, who are creating this change. “I can’t pretend the Orthodox community is totally open; not every community wants to hire us,” says Picker Neiss, one of Maharat’s first alumni, who serves Bais Abraham (“Bais Abe”) in St. Louis. “But none of us are talking about the patriarchy or breaking down Judaism. It’s about adding the other 50 percent of voices who have Torah to add to the world. Each person has something to contribute.” The larger St. Louis Jewish community has accepted Picker Neiss in one significant way — she’s the sole “non-rabbi” in the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.

The potential impact

Kanefsky and other BDJ members believe that hiring Thomas-Newborn will result in palpable impact. “What has already begun to happen and will continue to happen is that a far greater number of people will be involved in learning opportunities, upgrading and enhancing their mitzvah observance, involved in chesed [acts of charity and kindness] and tikkun olam [social action] activities,” Kanefsky said. “People respond to and resonate with Alissa, who she is as a spiritual teacher and as a woman, what she thinks about, the approach she brings to teaching and personal observance.”

As an example, Kanefsky cited a recent Shabbaton focused on mental-health issues that Thomas-Newborn spearheaded, which highlighted her family experience dealing with bipolar disorder and featured a community conversation on the subject. (See sidebar.)

“She found a way to open up conversations that have been hidden or latent,” Kanefsky said. “She made those conversations happen in a way that can only be described as spiritually magical. Her own sense of people’s inner pain and struggles are sacred issues that are the very stuff of service of God and the very stuff of what a shul community does together.”

“One of the most exciting things is that we don’t actually know what the larger impact will be yet,” Epstein said, “but it shows people who want to be community members and lay leaders that they are full members — if the clergy looks like them, they will feel more represented.”

The change has already begun, Wettstein said. “Our kids already don’t think it’s anything strange that a woman gives a drash. They’re growing up in a different world.”

“We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the women who fought the fight before us. We are the fruits of the labors of two generations of Jewish women who have been learning and leading,” Epstein added. “Just imagine where we could go in the next 40 years.”