Over 18 ½ years ago I was chosen to be the first Congregational Intern at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. When Rabbi Avi Weiss hired me, he explained that the position may be controversial as this was the first time that an Orthodox woman would be working in an Orthodox shul (synagogue) in a role similar to that of a rabbi.
I knew that everything I would be doing was halakhically (legally) acceptable as I was not serving as a witness, leading the services, or serving as a posek (decisor on legal matters), so I was not very concerned.
Of course when the word got out, the story was covered in every newspaper from The New York Times to The Washington Post, from The Jewish Week to Yated Ne’eman, from PBS Religion to ABC 11:00 News. But in the end, there were very few complaints from the Orthodox world. The reporters found an Orthodox woman committed to Jewish law helping out in ways that the men could not: helping women find the place in the siddur (prayer book), leading women in dancing in the women’s section, teaching Bat Mitzvah girls how to write and deliver a dvar torah (sermon on Jewish topic), visiting congregants in the hospital and in the local nursing homes, assisting female converts, teaching nursing mothers who were home with their babies, etc.
Yated Ne’eman even took the blame for the fact that I was giving divrei torah (sermons) for the congregation by saying that they had set a precedent by letting Bat Mitzvah girls and their mothers get up to speak publicly at smachot (family celebrations).
Once all of the press blew over, the larger Orthodox community accepted my role as a clergyperson. Not only was I being invited to speak at Women’s Tefila of Teaneck, NJ or the JOFA Conference, but also in very mainstream Orthodox conferences, such Amit Women’s National Convention and a Women’s Community Yom Iyun in West Orange, NJ.
By the time the HIR promoted me to Madricha Ruchanit (Religious Mentor) and hired a new intern, Karen Miller, we barely made the news. There was one article in Hadassah Magazine and that was about it. The right wing Orthodox community did not see our roles as threatening, but rather as a job that many rebetzins (rabbis’ wives) were already doing without pay.
Since I made aliya (moved to Israel) in 2004, Rabba Sara Hurwitz has taken over my role at the HIR, and there have been many other female interns both in Riverdale and in other communities. Many of these women completed the GPATS program through Yeshiva University and were not at all connected to Rabbi Weiss. No one considered any of this the least bit controversial.
Upon making aliya, I started an organization called Torat Reva Yerushlayim to fill the void in Jerusalem, which is not a shul based community. There were women and men who wanted to learn Torah but could not fit it into their existing frameworks. Mothers who were home with their babies needed the classes to be brought to them, as they could not comfortably bring a baby to a regular Torah study class. Bat Mitzvah girls from abroad wanted to find a meaningful way to celebrate in Israel. The elderly in the nursing homes still wanted to learn Torah, but had no way to attend a class unless it was brought to their nursing home. There was never any opposition from the Israeli men in the nursing homes, who are very traditional, to having a woman teach them.
In addition, I also became a member of the Rabbinic board of Beit Hillel, where male and female Religious Zionist spiritual leaders are treated as equals.
I am surprised that now – over 18 ½ years later, when there are so many women studying Torah in order to prepare themselves for a careers in synagogue leadership that were not available when I started out, and there are so many women working in shuls in the United States without anyone batting an eyelash – only now does the OU want to think about whether or not they want these women to work in their shuls.
My question for the rabbis is: Are they going to sit in the women’s section and help a woman saying kaddish (prayer for a lost family member) for the first time? Are they comfortable visiting a woman in the hospital who may not be fully dressed? Are they going to take a 12 year old girl to the mikveh (ritual bath) as she converts on the day that would be her Bat Mitzvah? Is it appropriate for them to spend hours alone with a Bat Mitzvah girl as she prepares her dvar torah? Is it appropriate for them to teach a group of nursing mothers? Should they be answering women’s nida (family purity laws) questions?
Even if the rabbis are comfortable with all of the above, how many girls and women would be comfortable being put in those situations considering all of the scandals our community has faced in recent years?
Now that women have been fulfilling these roles and many more, it is too late to turn back. There is enough work in the shul for both male and female leaders without anyone stepping on anyone else’s toes.
If women are excluded from leading in the shuls then in the end the congregants will leave with their female leaders and start their own communities and at that point the rabbis will really be out of a job.
18 ½ years of history can’t just be erased.
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This article originally appeared in My Jewish Learning on August 8, 2016.