Meet Marianne Novak

Meet Marianne Novak

Teaneck’s Netivot Shalom welcomes a new rabbinic intern

Marianne Novak
Marianne Novak

Marianne Novak always has been drawn toward teaching Jewish texts.

She’s a lawyer, married to a doctor; she’s a mother and an active member of the modern Orthodox community in Skokie, a very Jewish, somewhat Teaneck-ish suburban town just north of Chicago. She’s the daughter of a well-known rabbi who was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary but left the Conservative movement over long-simmering disagreements with many of its decisions, but sparked by his dismay over what he considered its un-halachic decision to ordain women as rabbis.

And now she’s a fourth-year student at Yeshivat Maharat, the very modern Orthodox school that ordains women as clergy, and she’s about to start an internship at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck. This weekend will be her first; the congregation is welcoming her and welcoming visitors to meet her.

And she is doing it all with the full support of her father, Rabbi David Novak, who now teaches Jewish studies at the University of Toronto. “He’ll be teaching at Maharat next year,” Ms. Novak said.

To bring everything even more full-circle, Netivot Shalom is in the building once owned by the Union of Traditional Judaism, where Rabbi Novak and many of his peers found a home as they moved into the Orthodox world.

As is often the case with rabbi’s children, Ms. Novak had a peripatetic childhood. She was born in Washington and moved to Oklahoma City; Baltimore; Norfolk, Va.; and Far Rockaway, on Long Island, where she moved when she was a teenager. She went to high school at the Yeshiva of Flatbush, and then moved to Morningside Heights to do her undergraduate work at Barnard. This was in the 1980s — Ms. Novak, at 51, is “one of the older students” at Yeshivat Maharat, she said. She learned how to leyn — to chant Torah — and she and some friends “started a women’s tefillah group at Columbia/Barnard for Mincha.”

The need to study, to read Torah, to teach text, and to lead was activated, and it became a force in her life.

Next, she went to Washington University in St. Louis for law school; it was at the school’s Hillel that she met Noam Stadlan, a medical student. They married, and stayed in St. Louis after she graduated, until he finished his residency. (He’s a neurosurgeon, and that’s not something you learn quickly. His residency took seven years.) “There were some women at Bais Avraham there — we called it Bais Abe — who wanted to start a women’s tefillah group. They knew I knew how to leyn, and that I knew liturgy, so I helped start the group. I taught a bunch of women how to leyn, and how to give divrei Torah.”

As for her day job, she worked at the Jewish federation in St. Louis, doing development. She was entirely immersed in the Jewish world.

Once Dr. Stadlan was ready to leave St. Louis, the family moved to suburban Chicago. “My children are seventh-generation Chicagoans, once removed,” Ms. Novak said; her husband did not grow up there but his parents and their line did, all the way back. She had relatives there as well. So although she had moved so many times as a child, now, finally, she was home. She’s lived there 23 years so far. “It’s the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere.”

When the family — Dr. Stadlan and Ms. Novak had three children; their middle child died 18 months ago — moved to Skokie, they found that “they already had a women’s tefillah group,” Ms. Novak said. She was pregnant with her first child then, and appreciated the luxury of being able to stay home. She ran the tefillah there, began to teach girls as they were about to become bat mitzvah — “it’s the model the men do for boys,” she said. “I teach the girls.” She has been teaching Melton classes for 20 years, and taught Tanach in the local Conservative high school for a while too.

“I was serving as a kind of quasi-rabbinic leader,” she said. “Just without credentials. And people would look to me, and ask me halachic and pastoral questions. I could answer them to a certain degree — first I’d refer them to their halachic authority — but I couldn’t give answers with a great degree of authority, because I didn’t have the credentials. So I would say, ‘In my house, we do it this way,’ and I would explain why.

“And then it became clear that I needed to do something more. I needed the proper credentials.”

Ms. Novak applied to Yeshivat Maharat, and despite her worry that she wouldn’t get in — because you’re never too old or too accomplished to worry about whether your application is strong enough — she did.

She still lives in Skokie; she is an off-site student, joining classes online. The technology allows her to see the entire class and for everyone in the classroom to see her. “There is an art to it,” she said. “I have a dedicated office to work in. I do not wear pajamas to class. I dress for class — except maybe for footwear.” (The bunny slippers wouldn’t show up on Skype.)

Once a month, Ms. Novak flies to New York to be in the beit midrash; that’s an experience better savored in person. She had been staying in the city from Wednesdays through Sundays. She loves the schedule; it allows her to spend some time with her daughter, who lives downtown, and also to be with her classmates. “I love them,” she said. “I came for the learning and the credentials, but now I have these new colleagues and friends, and I come also to be part of the culture.”

Now, though, Ms. Novak will leave Manhattan for Teaneck on Fridays once a month. She’ll stay with families. “Part of the internship process is getting to know the baal habatim,” she said. “This is a very good way to do it.”

This is her second internship; last year, she worked at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. “It was very nice to make all those connections,” she said; she expects that she’ll do the same this year.

She will join another intern, David Schwartz, although the two rarely will be there at the same time. She will give sermons during morning services, and will lead smaller learning sessions with girls. This Shabbat, there will be a kumsitz at the house of the congregation’s rabbi, Nathaniel Helfgot. She plans on being at Netivot Shalom about once a month between now and June.

After she is ordained in the spring, what title will she take?

“At this moment, I’m wavering between rabba and rabbi,” she said. “I am leaning toward rabbi.” That’s because she would like to help create a women’s beit midrash in Chicago, a serious place, where “there would be a range of programming that speaks to everyone, and a place of real text-based learning available to women of all ages and experience.” It would be good to have the credentials that come with the title of rabbi while creating such an institution, she said. It would help if she would choose to work in the Jewish federation world — federation “agencies also want to have a rabbinic presence. It doesn’t matter male or female, or what denomination you are, but it does require you to have the title of rabbi. And especially in interdenominational settings, and outside the Jewish community, it is convenient to have that title, because everyone understands it right away. It is a convenient shorthand.

“But to be honest,” she added, “along with my classmates, I am preparing for our smicha exam. That’s where my anxiety is, as opposed to the title. I just want to pass.”

Given everything, wouldn’t it have been easier to go to the Jewish Theological Seminary, and be ordained as a Conservative rabbi? Ms. Novak bristles at the question. “I am Orthodox,” she said. “I am Orthodox in my approach. In my philosophy. In the way I live my life. In the way my family lives their life. Maharat provides me with a legitimate way to do this. The seminary would be illegitimate for me.

“All paths are amazing, but this is the one that works for me. This is the proper path for me.”

“It is important” to bring female interns to Netivot Shalom, Rabbi Helfgot said; in fact, the shul has had others before Ms. Novak. “I believe very strongly in helping to train rabbinic leadership — both men and women — and this is one of the greatest ways for people to get experience on the job,” he said.

“This year we have two interns, a male and a female. David Schwartz was a very successful corporate lawyer who retired in his 40s. He wanted to have a very different career, so he is studying for smicha. Both he and Marianne are very accomplished people in their fields, and they both decided that they wanted to learn and to give back.”

He is entirely comfortable with the idea of a woman as a rabbinic intern.

“I believe that in this generation we have been blessed with learned women and learned men, and we live a life where both men and women can contribute to our religious and spiritual life,” he said. “It is very important to have that role model for both girls and boys. Our girls today are learning at a high level, and that is a very good thing.”

Also, he added, “I want to be able to help train people, and to give them an opportunity to grow. Our community is very welcoming, and very interested in hearing different voices.

“Netivot has always been at the forefront of engaging women in Jewish leadership.”

The shul’s president now is a woman, he added, and although Netivot is only 18 years old, she is the second woman to hold that position.

Netivot also joins three other Teaneck shuls in sponsoring a yoetzet halacha, who answers women’s questions on family relationships and sexuality. “That is important to us in terms of encouraging halacha,” Rabbi Helfgot said. “Women often are more comfortable asking halachic questions of another woman. And that’s another female role model.”

Will women who function as Orthodox clergy be different than their male peers? He doesn’t know yet, Rabbi Helfgot said. There haven’t been enough of them yet. And anyway, “the answer to that question will very much be dependent on specific talents and learning, and what people make of it.”

And what about the title? That’s easy. “For now, just rabbinic intern,” Rabbi Helfgot said.

He’s looking forward to welcoming Marianne Novak this Shabbat.

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