By Michele Alperin/

On the surface, Sunday’s ordination
ceremony for the first three graduates of Bronx, NY-based Yeshivat Maharat–the
first institution to train Orthodox women as spiritual leaders and halakhic
authorities–marked a historic moment for the Jewish community.

Click photo to download. Caption: From left to right, at the June 16 Yeshivat Maharat ordination ceremony in New York: Rabba Sara Hurwitz (dean of Yeshivat Maharat), Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold, and Maharat Abby Brown Scheier. Credit: Maxine Dovere.

But Rabbi Jeffrey S. Fox, rosh yeshiva
(academic dean) of Yeshivat Maharat, does not view the institution as trailblazing
or revolutionary.

“On the ground, on a day-to-day basis,
what we are doing is very normal, especially for these women who grew up in the
modern Orthodox world, where they had access to the same level of Jewish
education as their male friends,” Fox told

Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Rachel Kohl
Finegold, and Abby Brown Scheier–who completed a four-year program modeled off a traditional semikha (ordination) program and earned the title “Maharat,” an
acronym for legal, spiritual, and Talmudic leader–at Sunday’s ceremony in
New York City were “found worthy of being granted the authority to teach and
determine halakhic rulings to the Jewish people and… ordained as spiritual
leaders and decisors of Jewish law.” Rabbi Avi Weiss, founder of Yeshiva
Maharat, stated that there are no halakhic barriers to women’s ordination.

What is new about Yeshivat Maharat, according
to Fox, is that the graduates have secured jobs within the Orthodox community
in accordance with their training. “You can give them the best education and
the community can choose to call them whatever they want, but if we don’t give
them jobs, it is not worth anybody’s time and money,” Fox told

Yeshiva Maharat is shaping a role for
women in clergy that does not involve serving as a prayer leader, which women
are not allowed to do under Jewish law. “In a certain sense we are looking to
create a different kind of leader,” Fox said. “There is a certain type of leader
who leads from a place of davening (prayer) and another who leads from place of
learning, and that type of leadership has a certain power to it.”

Yeshivat Maharat board member Rabbi Dan Smokler–whose wife Erin Leib Smokler
teaches students at the yeshiva to integrate Jewish texts into services and
pastoral work–the yeshiva is an answer to his dream of being able to tell the passionate,
brilliant Orthodox Jewish women he sees as a Hillel rabbi at New York
University that they can become leaders in the Orthodox Jewish community.

think the inclusion of women, who are more than half the population, in the
spiritual, legal, and scholarly leadership of Orthodox faiths is of central
importance to the era we are living in,” Smokler told

Rabba Sara Hurwitz, dean and
cofounder of Yeshivat Maharat, is a nuts-and-bolts fundraiser (of $4 million
thus far), board developer, and infrastructure creator for the growing yeshiva,
which began in September 2009 and now has 14 students.

Hurwitz maintains that none
of the halakhic limitations on women will affect the graduates’ clerical
duties. “Women don’t count in a minyan, can’t serve on a bet din, and don’t
lead certain parts of services, …read more


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