At age 11, Jennie Rosenfeld, originally from Riverdale, decided to attend daily prayer services, an obligation only for men according to traditional Jewish law. She was often the only girl there.
“There were times I prayed in the kitchen,” said Rosenfeld, a student in a five-year ordination program in Jerusalem, in a phone interview with The Jewish Week from Jerusalem. “The community has come a long way since then.”
Today, Rosenfeld serves as the first female spiritual leader to jointly lead an Orthodox community in Israel. Though not assigned the title rabbi, Rosenfeld works alongside Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Efrat’s municipal chief rabbi, providing guidance, expertise in Jewish law and a voice of religious authority to community members. Rabbi Riskin led Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York to prominence in the 1970s and ’80s. His community in Efrat is seen as fashioned in Rabbi Riskin’s Modern Orthodox image.
Though appointed in the fall, Rosenfeld’s post was officially announced last week. She will be giving her inaugural lecture on Feb. 2.
According to Rabbi Riskin, there has been no prior appointment of this nature in Israel to date. “There’s a strong need for women’s halachic and spiritual leadership,” said Rabbi Riskin, who handpicked Rosenfeld for the role. “Frankly, I jumped at the opportunity to work with her.”
Rosenfeld is being referred to as a manhiga ruchanit, or spiritual adviser.
In the U.S., feminist Jewish leaders agree that the appointment marks an important turning point for Orthodox ritual life.
Blu Greenberg, founder of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance referred to Rosenfeld’s appointment as “another milestone in the historic journey of Orthodox Israeli women to full communal religious leadership.”
“Over the course of that journey, American and Israeli Orthodoxy have marched in tandem, and each step forward enlarges and enriches the entire enterprise,” she wrote in an email.
“The reality of women’s leadership in America mirrors what happens in Israel,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, head of Yeshivat Maharat, the first Orthodox program in America to ordain women as clergy. He refereed to the mutual influence between Israel and America as “cross pollination.”
“Progress there means progress here,” he said.
Rabbi Fox noted that last year, Yeshivat Maharat graduates had more job offers than they could fill.
“These women can do the job no matter what they’re called,” he said, referring to the touchy question of what title to use for female spiritual leaders, if not rabbi. “We’ve stayed away from the issue over the last couple years. As long as they’re getting jobs, it doesn’t matter what they’re called,” he said.
The phenomenon of female Orthodox representation is not relegated to the religious level, said Rabbi Asher Lopatin, president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the only rabbinical school in the U.S. that is Open Orthodox, a liberal offshoot of the wider Modern Orthodox movement. Rabbi Lopatin was a recent panelist on the topic of women’s roles and rabbinic authority at JOFA’s annual conference.
“This shift is also happening on a lay level within the chief rabbinate,” said Rabbi Lopatin — earlier this year several women were appointed to the board of the Beis Din of America, the largest Orthodox rabbinical court. “If half of the congregants are women, clergymen should be women,” he said.
Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the first female member of the clergy to receive Orthodox ordination in the U.S., regards the appointment as the “natural next step” in a shifting communal landscape.
“Communities in America have already discovered that they can’t function without female spiritual leadership in partnership with the rabbi,” said Rabba Hurwitz, who serves at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale alongside Rabbi Avi Weiss. “There is a gradual understanding that this is becoming necessary. Other communities in Israel and in America will follow suit.”
Rabba Hurwitz said she knew Rosenfeld personally from her days as a congregant at HIR. Rosenfeld lived in New York until 2008, during which time she completed a doctorate in English at the CUNY Graduate Center. A Wexner fellow, she wrote her dissertation on finding a Modern Orthodox sexual ethic within the Talmud. Rosenfeld also cofounded and directed Tzelem, a project at Yeshiva University that made resources on sexuality available to the Orthodox community. She also co-wrote a sex manual for Orthodox Jewish couples. She was named one of the 36 under 36 by The Jewish Week in 2008.
Rosenfeld admitted that she never foresaw the path of communal leadership for herself.
“Growing up, I didn’t envision this. My work on issues of sexuality in the Orthodox community led me to where I am. I realized that while I could give advice on these issues, I was missing a voice of halachic authority,” she said.
In order to gain this authority, Rosenfeld has embarked on 15 years of formal training. She is currently in her second year of a five-year ordination program at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem, which will gain her the title heter horaah, literally “permission to rule,” upon completion.
After that, she plans to pursue a 10-year program at Lindenbaum to become a formal female dayaan, or religious judge. Only four women are enrolled in this track.
Though she does anticipate some opposition to her new role, Rosenfeld is confident that her goals fall in line with Orthodox tradition.
“This idea might be new, but I hope to be taking the age-old principles of Jewish learning and texts with me,” she said. “I’m driven by a void in female leadership that needs to be filled, and a voice that needs to be heard. I’m not yet sure where the road will lead.”