How I became a maharat

How I became a maharat

I was raised in a modern Orthodox family in Chicago, the proud daughter of an Orthodox rabbi.

I grew up with a front-row seat to the daily workings of the rabbinate, and with my father as a spiritual role model in our community. On Shabbes, I intently watched and listened as he taught classes and gave drashas – critical analyses of Jewish texts. Occasionally, my father would take me to a program he was leading; afterwards, he would mull over aloud what worked and what didn’t, making me feel as if he were sharing his rabbinic experiences with me.

From a very young age, I had a window that opened directly into the world of Jewish communal leadership, and yet at the same time, I never considered – not even once – that this was a path I could follow or a world in which I could be involved in a tangible, professional way.

As I reflect on my childhood, I understand why. I simply did not see women in positions of spiritual or religious leadership within Orthodoxy. True, the female role models in my life were all strong, intelligent, professionally accomplished women. But they worked outside the Jewish community.

My female teachers in Jewish day school were wonderful examples of what it means to live a life of Torah, and their dedication continues to inspire me today. They were not, however, part of the spiritual or religious leadership of my school, and they did not hold these positions – even as lay leaders – in synagogue life.

As a result, I grew up believing that I could either pursue a career outside the Jewish community, or teach at a Jewish day school, but with limited access to text and spiritual leadership.

Fast forward to 2013/5773.

I am now one of three women in the first graduating class of Yeshivat Maharat, the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as spiritual leaders and halachic authorities. I am part of a growing number of women who have studied and now are engaged in the pursuit of a rigorous curriculum of Talmud, halachic decision-making (psak), pastoral counseling, and communal leadership. In just a few days, my husband, Yoni, and I will move to our new home in Washington D.C., where I will serve as maharat (a Hebrew acronym for Manhiga Hilkhatit Rukhanit Toranit, someone who is teacher of Jewish law and spirituality) at Ohev Sholom: The National Synagogue.

I fully realize that I did not arrive at this juncture in my life and career by accident. After high school, I attended Barnard College in New York City. I studied psychology, but I didn’t think that graduate school in that discipline would be the right fit. I also majored in Jewish studies but didn’t want to pursue an advanced academic degree. As graduation loomed, I felt uncertain about choosing a career that would be both fulfilling and solid.

It was at this point that I discovered the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education. For the first time in my life, I entered a women’s beit midrash – a house of learning – that had the goal of providing Jewish women with an advanced Jewish education. My teachers, both men and women, encouraged me to push myself to grow spiritually and professionally. Many of my teachers and peers were Orthodox, and they served as moral and religious guides.

Within days, I knew I wanted to stay and learn for another year. By the end of my second year of study, Rabba Sara Hurwitz received ordination from Rav Avi Weiss and Rabbi Daniel Sperber and Yeshivat Maharat opened its doors.

There it was – a concrete, distinct entity that could provide me with a rigorous Jewish education, leadership training, and a professional career path. Most importantly, it would offer a forum for me to participate as a spiritual leader in Jewish communal life.

It was everything I now realize I wanted since I was a little girl, watching my own father lead, teach, and support our Jewish community.

People occasionally ask why I didn’t opt to attend the Jewish Theological Seminary or Hebrew Union College, long-established Jewish institutions in which I could pursue a career in spiritual leadership. The answer is that first and foremost I identify as an Orthodox Jew, and to attend the school of another movement wouldn’t be authentic to who I am.

Yeshivat Maharat has provided me an educational, spiritual space to thrive as an Orthodox woman leader. My dream of a yeshiva that models spiritual leadership for the next generation of Orthodox young women has become reality.

Now, Jewish women around the world know that they too can have a role in Orthodox spiritual leadership should they choose it, and that there is an institution that can help them become leaders within the Jewish community. For me, and for others, Yeshivat Maharat is an important step in the Orthodox community’s journey, and I am proud to be among the first to serve.