Leah Sarna seemed destined to attend Yeshivat Maharat, the first seminary to ordain Orthodox women as rabbis. In 2009, for her senior thesis at the Maimonides School in Brookline, Mass., she posed a provocative question: Would it ever be possible for Orthodox women to become rabbis?
Two weeks before the deadline for handing in the paper, Riverdale Rabbi Avi Weiss ordained his student Sara Hurwitz with the title of “maharat,” but shortly after began referring to her as “rabba,” a move that sent shockwaves through the Orthodox community.
“I was excited, but also very nervous,” Sarna told The Jewish Week about the rabba designation. “It was this very precious thing that I very much wanted to see happen, but you want to see it happen right,” she said in a nod to the controversy.
Now, as she gets set to graduate on Monday from the Riverdale seminary, Sarna, who holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Yale, is part of the first class of women to witness, and be moved by, the inaugural graduation in 2013 of Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Rachel Kohl Feingold and Abby Brown Schier as “maharats.” (The term is an acronym for “halachic, spiritual and Torah leader.”)
It was that 2013 graduation that proved to be a turning point for Claudia Marbach, another member of Maharat’s class of 2018, who had a previous career as a teacher of Mishnah and Talmud at a small Jewish day school in her hometown of Boston.
“I heard about the graduation and got very excited about it,” Marbach said. “It was just terribly exciting, something I had waited for my whole life.”
Sarna and Marbach are two of the five graduates of Yeshivat Maharat’s sixth graduating class, and the ceremony June 18 comes amid the continuing push and pull in the Orthodox community over women’s clerical roles.
“The rabbinate is an obvious place to go for a young man because it’s a catch-all degree within the Orthodox community. A degree from Maharat doesn’t do the same thing because it’s politicized; people assume you have a certain hashkafa [worldview], which is not true of me.”
The Orthodox Union, the umbrella organization for Modern Orthodox synagogues, issued a statement last year that reasserted its ban on women rabbis. “We feel that the absence of institutionalized women’s rabbinic leadership has been both deliberate and meaningful, and should continue to be preserved.” Though the OU has allowed the four member synagogues with women clergy to be grandfathered into the organization, it has forbidden further hiring of women in rabbinical positions.
Yet, at the same time, the OU set up an institute to push for increased roles for Orthodox women in synagogue life, including teaching Torah, holding professional leadership positions and advising on some Jewish legal matters.
The continued controversy around Maharat and its graduates has prevented some women from applying. One Orthodox woman, who asked to not be identified, said, “The rabbinate is an obvious place to go for a young man because it’s a catch-all degree within the Orthodox community. A degree from Maharat doesn’t do the same thing because it’s politicized; people assume you have a certain hashkafa [worldview], which is not true of me.”
That sentiment hasn’t stopped Sarna and Marbach, both of whom said they were buoyed by seeing other Maharat grads land jobs inside and outside of synagogues.
Marbach, who will be pursuing further chaplaincy training and working to launch an adult learning organization in Boston, said that [graduation] feels like “a dream come true. When I thought about it when I was in college, I didn’t know that I would have the opportunity to do this.”
For Sarna, who will soon begin work as the director of religious engagement at Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago, “It just wasn’t obvious that there would continue to be jobs available — and the community’s continual bending in the direction of the future that I’m interested in building was not obvious.” But, she said, “The hiring process was seamless.”
Marbach was resolute. “I’m sorry that there are naysayers,” she said, “but that won’t stop me from teaching Torah and learning Torah.”