Three Englewood rabbis were named last week among “The 50 Most Influential Rabbis in America” by Newsweek magazine, a list topped by Yehuda Krinsky, head of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Using what they describe as “unscientific” criteria to award points to contenders, two friends in the entertainment business, Sony Pictures chair and CEO Michael Lynton and Gary Ginsberg, an executive vice president of Time Warner Inc., have published this annual compilation since 2007.
While many of the “winners” have appeared before and are virtually household names in the pantheon of Jewish spiritual and communal leadership, including Englewood’s Shmuley Boteach (#6 and a Jewish Standard columnist), Mark Charendorff (#4), and Menachem Genack (#16), one of this year’s picks may come as a surprise to some.
As Newsweek described it, Sara Hurwitz (#36) “rose to national prominence when Rabbi Avi Weiss (#18) bestowed [on] her … the title of ‘rabba.’ She is considered the first Orthodox woman rabbi ordained in the United States, and in this role she has had an impact on the roles considered acceptable for modern Orthodox women.”
That decision by Weiss earlier this year stirred controversy in Orthodox circles, as the movement has yet to officially sanction the ordination of women. He changed her title from maharat, a term that was little understood when Weiss invented it to mark Hurwitz’s completion of a five-year course of study for rabbinic training under his tutelage. Hurwitz was also a student at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, a center of advanced Judaic study for women.
Hurwitz, however, does not consider her selection by Newsweek inappropriate.
Reached at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the rabbinical seminary founded by Weiss and whose office is located at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale where Weiss is senior rabbi and Hurwitz is a member of the clergy, Hurwitz noted that she holds smicha – she was ordained by three Orthodox rabbis, Weiss and Rabbis Daniel Sperber and Joshua Maroof.
“In my case, I see the word ‘rabba’ as a description of my duties and roles: teaching and being a presence for congregants on a pastoral level, answering questions, speaking from the pulpit,” she said.
Declining to label herself “rabbi,” she nonetheless sees herself as a beacon of change for women in Orthodoxy and for the modern Orthodox community. “It’s a semantics game,” Hurwitz asserted. “I see myself performing rabbinic duties, but it has a new title to describe and explain the role of women in spiritual and halachic leadership. It’s new language, a new concept, which I know is very confusing.
“I think my most important contribution is helping other women see that it’s possible to become a spiritual leader in the Orthodox community,” she added.
Asked if her having being designated one of America’s 50 most influential rabbis by a mainstream, secular publication would help advance the cause of women’s ordination by the Orthodox movement, Hurwitz replied, “I hope so. I hope this whole conversation has helped put women’s spiritual leadership on the map in a serious way and will only continue to inspire women to pursue a career in spiritual leadership.”