Sara Hurwitz, the woman of the hour at this year’s international conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), revealed here on Sunday that she is considering relinquishing her controversial and unique new title of “rabba.”
After reflecting on the pros and cons of such an act with her audience in an address to the opening plenary, she said her congregation, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR), has begun to review the situation to see if the title proves to be a help or hindrance to her in her work with congregants.
At stake may be the status not only of Rabba Hurwitz’s title, but also of the congregation itself, which identifies as Modern Orthodox and is a member of the Orthodox Union.
A spokesman for the Agudath Israel of America, a haredi organization, made clear this week that if Rabba Hurwitz maintains her rabbinic role on the staff, regardless of whether she remains “rabba” or goes back to “maharat,” the title she was given when conferred by Rabbi Avi Weiss of HIR, the synagogue will not be considered Orthodox in the eyes of the Agudah.
Dan Perla, president of the 600-member Bronx synagogue, said he would not care if that happened and he did not think most members would, either.
“I don’t look to the Agudah for their blessing,” he said, adding that the congregation does look to the Orthodox Union and to the Rabbinical Council of America, the OU’s rabbinic arm, for approval.
Which makes more confusing, and problematic to Modern Orthodox synagogues, a statement issued by the Agudah this week that quotes RCA leaders distancing themselves from women participating on the rabbinic staff of synagogues.
The Agudah statement praised the centrist RCA for “clarifying” its position on the matter, quoting RCA’s president, Rabbi Moshe Kletenick of Seattle, as saying “it is unacceptable for an Orthodox synagogue to have a woman on its rabbinical staff.”
In an interview with The Jewish Week, Rabbi Kletenick said, “While those may not have been my exact words, they certainly accurately reflect the position that, while a woman can play a number of important roles in the synagogue, such as educator or counselor, she cannot function as a rabbi.”
In response to additional questions about the issue, Rabbi Kletenick said the matter of appropriate roles of leadership for women in the Othodox community would be discussed fully at next month’s RCA convention here.
The rabbi’s daughter, Gilah Kletenick, who spoke at Sunday’s JOFA conference on the problem of human trafficking in Israel, was listed in the speakers’ bios as a congregational intern at the Hebrew Institute of White Plains, an Orthodox synagogue.
Asked whether his daughter’s position was one of rabbinic staff, Rabbi Kletenick, in an e-mail, wrote: “Gilah is a congregational intern and not a member of the rabbinic staff. As a father, I am proud of our daughter and her accomplishments, as well as her desire to serve the Jewish people.”
He declined to define “rabbinic staff” or to explain how the RCA determines who does and who does not qualify as a member of such a staff.
For the moment, then — at least based on the Agudah’s quote — it would appear that the RCA and HIR, and possibly other synagogues with women in professional leadership roles, are on a collision course.
Perla, HIR’s president, acknowledged that “if the OU was upset [at HIR], people in the shul would be upset,” but he said he doesn’t think that will come to pass at his synagogue.
“I don’t think there will be a showdown,” he said, noting that in recent days “Rabbi Weiss has moved away from saying” Rabba Hurwitz “is a rabbi. But she is a member of the rabbinic staff.”
Asked what she would do if the RCA decides that a woman cannot be on the rabbinic staff of an Orthodox congregation, Rabba Hurwitz told The Jewish Week she believes it to be a question of semantics. “It’s new for women to function in these roles, so we’re trying to create appropriate language that reflects that these roles are distinct and within the framework of halacha.”
Initially, she said, she thought others would understand that the term “rabba” meant something different from male rabbi: that she would not go to a bet din, lead services or count in a minyan.
However, she said she realizes now that perhaps “we need to be more explicit and show there are differences between male and female religious leaders.”
Deliberating Over Her Title
The attention over women clergy in the Orthodox community seemed to galvanize the JOFA conference, which drew hundreds of attendees to Columbia University from the metropolitan area and around the country for a full day of more than 70 sessions on everything from mikveh to mechitza, and from sex to sewing.
Participants commented that they felt there were more men and more young people present at this year’s conference, which included a track for middle school students.
At the opening plenary, Rabba Hurwitz received a standing ovation on being introduced, and she shared her thoughts about what she described as “a difficult few weeks” for Rabbi Weiss and her, based on “a firestorm that was unexpected and unintended,” brought on by reaction to his conferring on her the title of “rabba” in January.
“On the one hand, if title has been such a lighting rod, why hold onto it?” she said. “My function has not changed, and yet suddenly, I have received phone calls asking me to consider retracting lest we continue on this slippery slope to becoming a Conservative shul.
“I have been asking myself this question as well — Wouldn’t it be better to just retract?”
“But on the other hand, having the title allows me to do my job better. … When I walk into a room as Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the reason I am there — whether to offer comfort or to celebrate a milestone — is clear, and people are more open to my guidance.
“But the fact remains,” she continued, “if the title causes a dissonance that will prevent me from serving my community then perhaps the title is not appropriate for now. And so the HIR community has started a process of educating and dialoguing with its congregants to help ensure that the title ‘rabba’ is truly the best fit for our community.”
Perla, the HIR president, said Monday his “first priority” is to gauge how the membership feels, noting that “a significant minority is not happy about the new title.” He said part of that reaction might be based on “errors of omission and lack of process” within the congregation, which he called “fair criticism.”
Rabbi Weiss, who was in Israel this week for a family simcha, acknowledged to his congregants last week that he moved too quickly and without sufficient consultation in conferring the title of “rabba” on Hurwitz.
Perla said the informal evaluation process within his congregation will likely take months, and if at the end of that time the sentiment reflects discomfort over the title, he believes Hurwitz will go back to being called “maharat,” an acronym for Hebrew words connoting worthiness to serve as “a halachic, spiritual and Torah leader.”
“The hope had been that she would feel more ennobled and empowered by the new title,” Perla said, “but if it works to her disadvantage, people would consider going back [to maharat] or consider something new.”
He said he felt that in the end, congregants would feel comfortable with the title “rabba” for Hurwitz. He added that “her job description hasn’t changed.”
By Any Other Name
At the conference, those interviewed articulated support for women religious leaders in synagogues, though a few participants disliked the title “rabba.”
One Chicago couple, Dalit Kaplan and Rafael Dascalu, suggested that Rabbi Weiss could have handled the issue in a less inflammatory manner.
“The way to gain credibility is to help foster knowledgeable leaders. If you go straight to the title you undermine the debate,” said Dascalu, who is 28.
Rabbi Ben Greenberg, 27, who together with his wife, Sharon Weiss Greenberg, runs the Jewish Learning Initiative at the Harvard Hillel, said that “issues of gender have become electric on our campus in a positive way.”
But he noted that maybe Harvard is “a little bit of a bubble since it has a large liberal Orthodox community with a lot of excitement about the potential for Orthodox women, and a little bit of disappointment with the ways the Orthodox bodies have treated” the issue.
Dascalu and Kaplan, his fiancée, belong to Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago, one of the few Orthodox synagogues to employ a woman in a position of religious leadership: Rachel Kohl Finegold, who serves as programming and ritual director.
Speaking at a lively panel at the conference entitled “A Rabbi By Any Other Name,” Kohl Finegold said some aspects of her role in synagogue are subtle, like standing next to a new mother at her daughter’s naming ceremony or helping a woman say Kaddish.
She said that she and the rabbi, Asher Lopatin, “try to make both sides of the mechitza feel part” of the service.
Another panelist, Dina Najman, who has served as rosh kehilah [head of congregation] at Kehilat Orach Eliezer (KOE) in Manhattan since 2006, said she purposefully chose a gender-neutral title and did not feel she was hired “as a token woman” but because she was qualified for the position.
Rabba Hurwitz was the third panelist — she seemed to be everywhere at the conference — and she observed that in her seven years at HIR, she has found that “the primary role of clergy is to create relationships and be there for people.
“I function as a rabbi,” she said, “but language is very difficult now, so I say I function as a spiritual leader.”
Elicia Brown is a columnist for The Jewish Week; Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher.