New role for Orthodox women?
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New role for Orthodox women?

Israeli institute to ordain them as rabbi-educators

JERUSALEM – The Shalom Hartman Institute here made waves with its unveiling earlier this week of a new school that will ordain both men and women as "rabbi-educators" to work in North American Jewish community high schools.

"Some people will applaud what we’re doing and some will be upset, and that’s ok," said Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, the institute’s co-director, in a phone interview with The Jewish Standard. "We’re not in a popularity contest. The issue of who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ we leave to other institutions."


Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, co-director of the Shalom Hartman Institute, is a former scholar-in-residence at the JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.

Hartman, who lived in Englewood while serving as scholar-in-residence at the JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly from 1984 to 1995, added that he is fully aware of the controversy the announcement caused.

"I understand that a multi-denominational ordination for men and women is an issue for some," he said, "but for the institute, our primary focus is on the quality of the educator and not on their gender or denomination."

Founded by Donniel Hartman’s father, Rabbi David Hartman, in 1976, SHI offers research, education, and leadership training to Israelis and North Americans of all denominations.

The ordination program, to begin in September, is an extension of SHI’s existing teacher-education program — funded by the Bergen County-based Russell Berrie Foundation along with the Jim Joseph Foundation — that confers a master’s degree in partnership with Tel Aviv University following two years of study. Its graduates teach at Orthodox and secular schools in Israel as well in Jewish high schools in North America. Twelve of its current 35 students are female.

The rabbi-educator track, to accommodate up to 15 candidates, will require four years of course work and an additional year of internship at a Jewish community high school. These multi-denominational schools, which Hartman lauded as "a new radical innovation in American Jewish life," espouse a pluralistic curriculum and philosophy. As the number of such schools across the continent grows, Hartman said, "there is a profound need to upgrade the quality of educators."

Hartman stressed that the goal of the new program is "just a further recognition of what we have been doing all along" and is narrowly focused on producing credentialed educators.

"This is not a program to help rectify gender inequalities in Judaism," he said. "Its primary innovation is that we will be willing to give one ordination to men and women, whether they are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist. We’re not ordaining deciders of Jewish law or ‘dayanim’ [rabbinic judges], but solely rabbis as master teachers. ‘Rabbi’ is the highest title for an educator in the Jewish community."

The ordination is to be non-denominational. "I’m not going to be ordaining [the students] as an official representative of a denomination," said Hartman, himself an Orthodox rabbi. "The issue is the quality of the message they’re able to communicate. Jewish studies is an identity, not a discipline, and unless we have teachers who are capable of seeing it as such, and communicating it as such, we will be a religion with a great past but a very mediocre future."

According to the Jewish Community Day School Network based in Manhattan, affiliated schools in New Jersey include the Hebrew Academy of Morris County, the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex, and the Jewish Community Day School of Atlantic and Cape May Counties.

Hartman lamented the fact that North Jersey does not have a Jewish community high school. "This is criminal," he said. "Bergen County is one of most vibrant and important Jewish communities in North America and yet now it lags behind other smaller communities. This situation cannot be allowed to continue."

That point was countered by Dr. Wallace Greene, director of Jewish Educational Services of the UJA-Federation of Northern New Jersey, who said community schools generally are found in areas that cannot sustain a school of a particular denomination.

"It’s difficult to say it’s unfortunate we don’t have one here," said Greene, who coincidentally served as David Hartman’s assistant rabbi in Montreal many years ago. "It’s unfortunate there’s no Solomon Schechter high school [anymore], but then again they couldn’t sustain one in Manhattan either. Demography determines what type of school you have, and apparently people here didn’t feel the need for a community school."

Greene agreed, however, that there is a general need for programs that produce better-prepared educators, especially in light of the fact that Jewish schools do not require teachers to be licensed. "Whether the Hartman Institute is the best place for that is open to debate," he said.

Whether Bergen’s several Orthodox high schools would hire an SHI-ordained rabbi-educator is also open to debate. Hartman speculated that this may happen if candidates "will be judged by the quality of their message and their ability to inspire students within the educational philosophy of the school."

Rabbi Yosef Adler, rosh yeshiva of the Torah Academy of Bergen County — an Orthodox boys’ high school — said he is not familiar enough with the new SHI program to comment on it. But, he said, "I hired a woman to teach Tanach [Bible classes] and I don’t need somebody with a title. I hire teachers based on whether they’re good educators."

Why would someone identifying as Orthodox choose the Hartman program?

"If this person sees themselves as outside the classical denominational debates, and sees their calling as serving Jews and being able to inspire Jews to want to be Jewish, they’ll come here knowing they will be well trained and sought after by community high schools," responded Hartman.

He expects that many candidates for the selective four-year program will view this option as a unique alternative to pulpit-oriented rabbinical schools.

"Our goal is not to determine issues of authentic Judaism but to provide quality change agents for Jews of all denominations," said Hartman. "The institute is not for everybody, and it’s not the only solution for Jewish life. We build programs based on our assessment of what we believe are critical needs facing the Jewish community — never through attempting to find approval from others. We are not involved in the politics of Jewish life."

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