Facing OU directive, Orthodox women clergy say they’ll keep working
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Facing OU directive, Orthodox women clergy say they’ll keep working

Rabba Ramie Smith was ordained in 2016 and is now a clergy member at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Orthodox synagogue in New York. (Courtesy of Smith)
Rabba Ramie Smith was ordained in 2016 and is now a clergy member at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Orthodox synagogue in New York. (Courtesy of Smith)

Rabba Ramie Smith of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Orthodox congregation, said last week that she didn’t have time to protest the Orthodox Union decision banning its synagogues from hiring women clergy like her.

She was busy organizing a Shabbat conference with Yachad, a group supporting Jews with disabilities. Then she had classes to plan, congregants to meet, and a podcast to host.

“The way I’m reacting is showing up to work and continuing to do my job,” Rabba Smith, who received ordination in 2016, said. “It might make some people nervous, but the more we continue doing our jobs, having people see who we are and what we do, the work speaks for itself.”

Rabba Smith is one of 14 graduates of Yeshivat Maharat, which trains and ordains Orthodox women clergy members. The New York school was one of the main targets of a decision issued Thursday by the Orthodox Union, an umbrella Orthodox Jewish group, barring its member synagogues from hiring female clergy.

The decision, made by a committee of seven Orthodox rabbis, follows a 2015 decision by the Rabbinical Council of America — an umbrella group of Orthodox rabbis — that also barred women clergy. The OU decision says that while there is a place for women at synagogues to teach Torah, hold professional leadership positions, and advise on certain Jewish legal matters, Jewish law prohibits women from filling the role of a pulpit rabbi, however that might be defined.

“The formal structure of synagogue leadership should more closely reflect the halakhic ethos,” the decision read. “For the reasons stated above we believe that a woman should not be appointed to serve in a clergy position.”

Five OU synagogues now employ Yeshivat Maharat graduates — they all hold the title of “rabba” or “maharat” — and the ruling could discourage others from following suit. But graduates of the school said they were not surprised by the ruling, and that it would not affect their work. They said they have received overwhelmingly positive responses from their congregants.

Leah Sarna, due to receive ordination in 2018, opposes the OU decision but appreciates the Jewish legal process that guided it. (Courtesy of Sarna)
Leah Sarna, due to receive ordination in 2018, opposes the OU decision but appreciates the Jewish legal process that guided it. (Courtesy of Sarna)

“It’s jarring for the OU to be coming out and condemning this when so many communities are moving ahead with this,” said Maharat Ruth Friedman, who works at Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C. “In our communities we have found that women’s leadership has become accepted much more quickly than we thought.”

Rabbi Avi Weiss, rabbi emeritus of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, founded Yeshivat Maharat in 2009, soon after he ordained Sara Hurwitz, the first rabba. After working at HIR for some time, Rabba Hurwitz became the school’s dean. Yeshivat Maharat now has 28 students. Of its 14 graduates, nine are employed as clergy in synagogues.

The school, and Rabba Hurwitz personally, have faced backlash from Orthodox leaders. But Rabba Hurwitz says the OU decision hasn’t led her to question her commitment to Orthodoxy.

“I think that what we’re seeing is that Orthodox Judaism is a big tent,” she said. “I feel very strong and committed in my Orthodox practice, and so do my students, and they particularly want to serve in Orthodox communities and be part of Orthodox communities.”

The OU decision did emphasize that women could fill a range of non-clergy roles in the synagogue, from teaching to lay leadership. And it approved of women serving as “halachic advisers” who give Jewish legal advice to women on topics such as family purity and sexuality.

Rabbi Marc Dratch, executive vice president of the RCA, who supports the decision, said it shows that the OU recognizes that women need to have a role in the synagogue.

“I think it was an important step for the OU in setting standards for congregations that are part of the umbrella,” he said. “What you have here is a nuanced statement that sets certain limits but encourages advancement in other areas.”

Leah Sarna, who is due to graduate from Yeshivat Maharat next year, said that while she disagrees with the OU’s decision, she understands the wariness that some Orthodox Jews have toward ordaining women as rabbis after thousands of years of a male-only rabbinate. Like them, she says, she appreciates the weight of tradition.

“Figuring out what Hashem wants from us is heavy and difficult work,” she said. “In our generation, this is our question, and this is what we’re trying to figure out.

“On one hand, it hurts. On the other hand, I’m not sure I would want it to be any other way.”

JTA Wire Service

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