Leah Sarna, an Orthodox rabbinical school student, recalled growing up in “your standard Orthodox community — with almost no female leadership.”

Sarna, 26, a fourth-year student at Yeshivat Maharat, the only Orthodox Yeshiva in North America that ordains women, decided to pursue a career in the rabbinate to change that.

“Starting on this path felt new and scary,” said Sarna, who graduated from Yale University with a degree in philosophy before beginning the ordination process.

Though she was initially “nervous” to answer “so what do you do?” when asked her profession at Shabbat tables, she was surprised by the warm reception her answer — pursuing rabbinical ordination — received.

“People — and not just the people you’d expect — were sincerely excited by the prospect,” she said.

Sarna said she was “heartened” by a statement released by the Orthodox Union this week that stressed a commitment to maximizing female involvement in the “professional life of synagogues and communities,” among other things.

Leah Sarna, a soon-to-be graduate of Yeshivat Maharat, will take up a position in an O.U. member shul upon graduation. Courtesy of Shulamit Seidler-Feller

“I’m glad the OU is recognizing that more and more women will follow in this path,” said Sarna, who will be taking up a post as director of religious engagement at a large Orthodox synagogue in Chicago after her ordination in June.

Others were not as pacified by the OU’s statement, which gave temporary recess to a year-long debate about what to do about member synagogues with female clergy on staff; the controversy followed a February 2017 ruling by the OU banning women from the rabbinate.

The new statement, released by the OU last week, said synagogues with female clergy on staff will not be expelled by the umbrella organization. However, the OU reaffirmed its policy to prohibit other synagogues from hiring women in rabbinic positions because of concerns over maintaining “halachic norms and our mesorah,” meaning Jewish law and tradition.

The OU clarified that the decision to “grandfather-in” — or perhaps more aptly to “grandmother-in” — the four member synagogues with female clergy on staff “should not be viewed as an endorsement of such arrangements.”

“Our stance is quite clear,” said executive vice president of the OU Allen Fagin. “Essentially, there are a number of professional roles that women can play, including teaching Torah and providing pastoral guidance and counseling to congregants,” he said. “What they cannot do is function as rabbis of congregations.”

Recent graduating class at RIETS rabbinical school of Yeshiva University.

According to the most recent “guidelines” set forth by an OU panel of seven rabbinic scholars, an Orthodox female rabbi cannot “rule on a full-range of halachic matters,” officiate at significant lifecycle events, deliver sermons on a regular basis or serve as a synagogue’s primary religious spiritual guide, among other restrictions. These duties, they say, contradict Jewish law and its accompanying “ethos of gender roles,” according to the 2017 statement. Further, a synagogue’s “enhanced level of modesty” is “incompatible” with a woman “presiding over a male quorum.”

Many remain confused by the latest statement.

“It’s pretty clear that the OU doesn’t believe this is a real ‘halachic’ problem,” said Bat Sheva Marcus, president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA). “If the OU truly thought that women clergy was a violation of halacha, they wouldn’t have ‘grandfathered’ in those synagogues. You don’t ‘grandfather in’ halachic violations.”

President of JOFA, Bat Sheva Marcus. Courtesy

In response, Fagin said the “goal” is to work with the four member synagogues over the next three years to see if these synagogues will comply with the OU’s decision.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, senior rabbi at a large Orthodox synagogue in Washington, D.C., was among the first rabbis to welcome a female clergy member on staff. Ruth Friedman, who holds the title “maharat,” began working at the synagogue in 2013, after receiving ordination in the inaugural class of graduates from Yeshivat Maharat. His congregation, a member synagogue of the Orthodox Union, has no plans to change or alter Maharat Friedman’s role.

“Why would we change?” said Rabbi Herzfeld, pointing to a community survey conducted last summer that reflected a 99 percent approval rating of Maharat Friedman’s role and contributions.

Rabbi Herzfeld believes “halacha,” or Jewish law, is being used as a front to disguise “an underlying discomfort [in the Orthodox world] with women in positions of leadership in a religious setting.”

“You don’t ‘grandfather in’ halachic violations.”

Though he was at first “skeptical” of the necessity of a female spiritual leader, watching Maharat Friedman at work has changed his mind. “We need female spiritual leaders, and we need them quickly,” he said. “Our communities desperately need what trained female leaders can offer.”

Recent data on the American Modern Orthodox community seems to bolster the sentiment.

A first-of-its-kind survey on the niche community, published in Sept. 2017, found that 53 percent of all respondents, and 65 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 34, support expanded roles for women in Orthodox clergy; 38 percent said they strongly or somewhat support women in clergy roles holding a title of rabbinic authority. Additionally, 60 percent of respondents said they prefer that questions regarding laws of family purity, or niddah, be directed towards women decisors, titled yoetzet halacha, rather than rabbis.

The recent Nishma survey found higher levels of Modern Orthodox support for women clergy. This table shows support by denomination. Courtesy of Nishma Research

“The data shows that the gradual acceptance of women in roles of authority is becoming more widespread and pronounced,” said Mark Trencher, author of the report and a former public policy analyst. He pointed to the high percentage of community members — 74 percent — who today support women serving as presidents of synagogues, a once contested appointment.

“The data shows that the gradual acceptance of women in roles of authority is becoming more widespread and pronounced.”

Steven Bayme, a historian and AJC’s director of Contemporary Jewish Life, said the OU’s prohibition of female clergy reflects “the historical problem of Orthodoxy always looking over its right shoulder.

“The challenge: Will the OU’s voice, which claims to represent Orthodox Jewry, provide a large enough umbrella to encompass the right, center and the left?” he said. In practice, he added, the OU has “been extremely receptive to charedi viewpoints” — most of whom would never join the OU — but fell short on being “every bit as welcoming to the voice of the Orthodox left.”

Bayme continued: “These few member synagogues [with women clergy] are not claiming the OU needs to embrace their definition of female clergy — they just want a place in the sun.” Meanwhile, the “most extreme opinions” — disseminated by increasingly homogenous, centralized and powerful rabbinic authorities — “have become the normative opinions.”

Rabba Sara Hurwitz. Credit Melanie Hurwitz

At Yeshivat Maharat, it’s “business as usual,” said Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the first Orthodox woman to receive rabbinic ordination and the president of the female rabbinical school.

Today, 19 ordained graduates are working in the field — eight of whom are serving from the pulpit in OU synagogues — and 28 women are currently on the path to ordination.

“The statement doesn’t change anything,” said Rabba Hurwitz. “We will continue to function and live out our vision of ordaining Orthodox women to serve the Jewish people at large.”

Responding to the OU’s most recent statement, Rabba Hurwitz said she is happy the organization is “recognizing the necessity of having Orthodox women function in professional communal roles.

“We’re glad they’re catching up,” she said.