Rena Rackovsky Bannett has worn many hats in her 53 years, both the literal ones she dons as an observant married woman, and also the figurative ones — artist, scientist, educator, grandmother. In another four years, Bannett may gain another identity, that of Orthodox rabbi.
Though she’ll possess the credential of a rabbi, it’s unlikely she’ll receive that title.
Bannett is one of four students to enter the first class at Yeshivat Maharat, the new Orthodox seminary which opened last month in Manhattan, and plans to ordain North American women — and one day soon, students living farther away. “It’s a big step to go down this road,” admits Bannett, who says that the concept of a woman getting semicha,
or rabbinical ordination, takes her out of her “comfort zone.” But so far, she’s mesmerized by the education, and ultimately hopes to use her knowledge to teach others.
Though Bannett may not focus extensively on her groundbreaking role, the school’s opening could not have been imagined in the past. “A yeshiva to train Orthodox women to serve the community as rabbis — albeit with a different title?,” asks noted Orthodox feminist Blu Greenberg. “This was on no one’s radar screen 30 years ago.”
As is the nature with pioneering programs, it can be difficult to see around the next bend. The students, selected from a pool of 35 applicants, are all proficient in Talmud and rabbinic texts. But they don’t have a clear idea of exactly how they will make use of the certification, or even what they will be called.
Maharat? Not everyone is so fond of the new acronym, standing for “manhiga,” “hilchatit,” “ruchanit,” “toranit,” — leader in Jewish religious law, spiritual matters and Torah.
Sara Hurwitz, the director of the school and the world’s first maharat, received her title in the spring after completing a rabbi’s full curriculum of study. She says: “Anything can change between now and four years. Making a career choice based on title would be a mistake. This is a calling. This picks you.”
In addition to her role as school director, Hurwitz serves as a clergy member at the Orthodox Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. At HIR, Hurwitz says she functions “essentially as a rabbi.” In keeping with an Orthodox understanding of Jewish law, she abstains from certain rabbinic roles because she is a woman. She does not serve as a religious witness or lead a complete service. But she does plenty of other rabbinical work, officiating at funerals and other lifecycle events, answering halachic questions, and offering pastoral counseling to the sick and the dying.
Still the term “maharat” doesn’t resonate with many outside the community of HIR.
“We’ll see how the title maharat holds,” says Rabbi Avi Weiss, spiritual leader of HIR, founder of Yeshivat Maharat and the rabbi who granted Hurwitz her title this spring. He says the school’s opening is “one of the great moments I’ve been blessed with in my professional life.” He also says, “I’ve been toying around with the title rabah,” the Hebrew feminine of rabbi.
Though several Orthodox women have pursued rabbinic ordination around the world in the past decade or so, all have traveled along their own idiosyncratic roads, paving the way as they go. The new seminary structures a path following the same course of study offered by an Orthodox rabbinical school for men.
Students at Yeshivat Maharat study Talmud in the mornings in classes at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education. Founded in 1979, Drisha is considered the leading center of study for women in advanced Jewish texts. As in traditional yeshivas, the four Yeshivat Maharat students spend many hours going over texts with a chevruta, a study partner. Two afternoons a week, they receive instruction in halacha, Jewish law, from Rabbi Yisocher Katz, who has taught in many venues, including in right-wing, black-hat institutions in Borough Park, Brooklyn.
Rabbi Katz, who grew up in the Satmar community of Williamsburg, says that it saddens him to think of the many intellectual woman — like his own sisters and mother — who miss the opportunity to experience what he calls “a sophisticated religiosity.” While his own daughters attended haredi schools, he’s exposed them to opportunities in learning that weren’t available there. “It infuses entire lives with such meaning,” he says.
Though it is revolutionary in nature, Yeshivat Maharat opened quietly last month, with few indications of its presence at the Upper West Side premises of Drisha, where classes are held. As always at Drisha, the hum of dialogue over text continues in the long, sunny beit midrash, while a few steps away, down the hall, the third class in halacha begins at Yeshivat Maharat.
Seated at a long wooden table with space for at least a dozen students, two women prop open their Gemaras to the assigned reading. Neither sees herself as a pioneer. “Everything I’m doing feels totally natural,” says Ruth Balinsky, who is 24, and the product of an Orthodox household where she was not discouraged from undertaking the same Jewish obligations as a man. She currently volunteers at Uri L’Tzedek, the first Orthodox social justice organization.
Rena Rackovsky Bannett jokes about her decision to enroll in the program: “It’s my midlife crisis.” Bannett, a recent graduate of the three-year Drisha Scholars Circle, says: “I like to guide people. But I don’t always know the answers” without consulting the text. “I’m here to learn. Period.”
A third student, Abby Brown Scheier, pops up on the screen of a laptop perched in the center of the table. She commutes to class via Skype from her book-lined home in Montreal, where she lives with her husband, an Orthodox rabbi. She works as a principal in the synagogue’s Hebrew high school.
Before class begins, Scheier darts away to remove something from the oven. As a rebbetzin, she hosts as many as 100 people for meals during the High Holy Days.
She told her 3-year-old daughter, she’s “going to be a rabbi like abba,” like daddy.
Rabbi Katz peers at his three students. “Let us imagine for a second that we are already Talmudei Chachamim,” learned scholars, he says, just a hint of a smile brightening his face. He launches into a series of queries on the passage, which deals with tearing one’s garment when in mourning.
Only one face is missing from the table today. Rachel Kohl Finegold, who gave birth to her first child on Sept. 13, is among the few women who already hold significant posts at Orthodox synagogues. She’ll soon be Skyping in from Chicago, where she serves as education and ritual director at Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation.
“Right now,” Kohl Finegold says, “I’m counted as a religious leader because the rabbi of my synagogue chooses to include me.” She decided to undertake this program, because rabbinic ordination, would give her “another layer of authority.”
It is uncertain how that authority will be viewed by the wider Orthodox world. But Blu Greenberg places the seminary in the context of a long history of gradual change and acceptance, including the creation of Bais Yaakov schools for girls in the early 20th century, highly controversial at a time when educating women was far from a priority in Orthodox circles.
Yeshivat Maharat is “built not only on the gains of the last 40 years — the institutions of women’s learning such as Drisha, and women’s new leadership credentials such as toanot, yoatzot, and congregational interns, but also on the many incremental and pathbreaking steps of the last few centuries,” Greenberg writes, referring to women who have been trained in recent years as advocates in divorce cases and as experts on the laws of ritual purity.
“It is the great good fortune of future generations that Rabbi Avi Weiss and Maharat Sara Hurwitz have taken the initiative to advance the causes of women’s Torah learning and spiritual leadership once again,” Greenberg continues.
The school is small at this point, funded through individual donors, with a goal of raising $100,000 by the end of the academic year. It is an independent entity, not affiliated with either Drisha, whose space it uses, or with HIR. It is also not considered a sister institution to Rabbi Weiss’ Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, founded in 1999 to offer an open-minded approach to Orthodoxy.
This distancing of the school touches on the political and ideological sensitivities it creates. Some YCT students have expressed reservations about the opening of this rabbinical seminary for women. One student, who spoke anonymously, commented: “Some students are extremely excited about it. They feel it’s a step in the right direction. Others are nervous about their own job placement,” worried that the school might hurt YCT’s image in the mainstream Orthodox community.
While some YCT students wonder how Yeshiva Maharat may affect their employment, the question of job placement may prove more challenging for the Maharat graduates.
Hurwitz says that she is already in conversation with one rabbi about providing a position at his synagogue, and has broached the topic with three others. In addition, some graduates may opt to work in settings with a more relaxed attitude toward female spiritual leaders — on college campuses, day schools or social justice organizations.
For their part, the Maharat students say they’re focused on their studies. “It’s really about the process for the moment,” says Abby Brown Scheier.
When asked where a maharat might work, Bennett replies: “One of my projects for this year is not to think about things like that. I get kind of panicky when I think of things like that.”