The Orthodox Union is founding its own division to advance women as congregational leaders, as well as to promote Jewish study and communal participation for women in Modern Orthodoxy.
The announcement comes nearly nine months after the group, an umbrella association of centrist Orthodox synagogues in the U.S. and Canada, issued a ruling banning those synagogues from hiring women for clergy roles.
The Department of Women’s Initiatives, which will launch Nov. 1, aims to increase women’s participation in synagogues in a way the OU feels is consonant with Orthodox tradition.
It does not deal with the issue of clergy titles for women in leadership roles.
“I think it’s important for women to hear what they can do,” said Adina Shmidman, the department’s incoming director. “This department is really focused on the positive, and the will to continue and find opportunities for women.”
The department will have a budget in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and provide guidance, networking and funding for women who want to be professional leaders in Orthodox synagogues. It will also promote women as congregational scholars-in-residence and encourage women to take on lay leadership roles at synagogue. In addition, it will encourage the physical expansion of women’s spaces in synagogues.
Also, the department will offer high-level women’s classes in Torah study, as well as programs for youth. And it will form a think tank to analyze programs and resources for Orthodox women.
Conceived three years ago, the department is in part a response to the ascendance of women to public leadership roles during the past few decades, OU leaders said. They also noted that there is a much wider range of educational opportunities available to Orthodox women than in the past. A synagogue with an entirely male senior staff, said OU President Moishe Bane, risks unintentionally sidelining half its membership.
“It’s difficult to expect that when men are the primary communal leadership that they’ll understand and appreciate the roles women play and should be playing, and the needs they have,” Bane said. “I think there’s a recognition in the Orthodox Union that the world is changing rapidly, and people’s expectations are changing rapidly.”
In February, the group issued a ruling barring women from holding a title such as “rabbi,” or even from serving without title in a role in which she would be performing “common” clergy functions such as ruling on legal matters, officiating at life-cycle events, delivering sermons from the pulpit during services, leading services and serving as a synagogue’s primary authority.
The same ruling urged an expanded role for women as teachers and pastoral counselors, and as lay leaders and professionals.
Bane and Allen Fagin, the OU’s executive vice president, said the department’s establishment is not a reaction to fallout from the ban. Rather, Bane said the ban itself was a result of the department’s planning process, which included an examination of Jewish legal limits on women’s leadership.
The department will advance women as teachers, professional staff and pastoral counselors. But Bane said a woman should not be “the face of the synagogue.”