WASHINGTON - It’s been only a month since one of America’s first female Orthodox clergy members joined Congregation Ohev Shalom/The National Synagogue in Washington, DC and, already, the synagogue’s senior rabbi can’t understand how they ever managed without her.
“It’s just been amazing having Maharat Ruth [Balinsky Friedman] on staff with us this past month,” says Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld. “You don’t really know how much something is needed until you start it and then you realize, wow, what an unbelievable thing it is.”
Herzfeld says he’s had nearly two dozen new member applications since Balinsky Friedman began in August and describes her arrival as a “jolt of electricity” that energized the community, especially women and girls.
“A 6-year-old girl came up to me and asked how one becomes a maharat,” he said. “A few families have approached us and asked if Maharat Ruth can study with their daughters, who go to a public school, and would be more comfortable learning with a woman. It’s inspiring, because it means our young women can now connect with the Torah in more than a passive way and be active leaders in the community.”
So how does Maharat Ruth, 28, feel about her new job?
“I’m thrilled and deeply honored to be in a position to help other people grow in their Jewish identity,” she said. “I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community in Chicago, where women weren’t in positions of leadership. It never crossed my mind that I could be in such a role, but now that I’m here, I hope to do my best to show young women that there’s a place of leadership possible for them in the Orthodox Jewish community.”
Friedman is one of the three-member first graduating class of New York City’s Yeshivat Maharat, run by controversial Rabbi Avi Weiss-ordained Rabba Sara Hurwitz, Maharat’s dean, who also works on the rabbinical staff of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR).
The school rents space from the Drisha Institute, a well-established Jewish educational center where many of Maharat’s students first began studying.
Friedman’s official title is not “rabbi” (or, unlike Hurwitz, the feminine form, “rabba”). Rather, maharat is an acronym that stands for “manhiga hilchatit ruchanit toranit,” which means a female teacher, legal scholar and spiritual leader.
Nevertheless, Maharat Ruth, as she’s known at Ohev Shalom, has a 16-point job description that includes everything from officiating at weddings, bar mitzvahs and funerals, to leading study groups, conducting community outreach and giving weekly sermons.
On Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Herzfeld gave the sermon on the first day and Maharat Ruth delivered one on the following day. In fact, Maharat Ruth got some tips for her Rosh Hashanah speech from another member of the Orthodox clergy: her father.
“My Dad is an Orthodox rabbi,” she said. “When I was growing up, he was the director of the Northwestern University Hillel in Chicago. Thanks to him, I grew up immersed in the world of Jewish communal leadership.”
And how does he feel about his daughter following in the “family business”?
“He’s excited. My father has been very supportive of me and has been a great mentor.”
Of course, not all members of the Orthodox community are as supportive of female clergy as Rabbi Michael Balinsky in Chicago. For now, the phenomenon of maharats seems limited only to the most liberal end of the Orthodox spectrum.
The centrist Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America released a statement in May, one month before Maharat Ruth, Rachel Kohl Feingold and Abby Brown Schier were ordained, declaring, “We cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the rabbinate, regardless of title.”
During their ordination ceremony, one observer told The Jewish Week that “it was like graduating medical school, but not being allowed to call yourself a doctor.”
But Maharat Ruth stresses that she doesn’t seek to have an identical role to that of Rabbi Herzfeld.
“I’m an Orthodox Jew and Orthodox Jewish law dictates differences in the roles between the sexes,” she said. “The maharat is an important step that sends the message to women and girls that you can get a really good Jewish education and be sufficiently recognized for it. It also signals that, as long as you’re acting within the confines of halacha, you can empower people.”
Count Julie Silverstein as impressed with Maharat Ruth’s first month on the pulpit. The Harvard-educated young mother and public relations executive is a regular at Ohev Shalom and says there’s a palpable buzz in the pews.
“She’s injected a strong and articulate voice to our explorations around the world of women in our synagogue — an issue which is dear to many of our congregants as well as the rabbi,” she said.
Silverstein said the number of offerings of classes and programs has increased dramatically in the past month and credits Maharat Ruth with attracting women (and men) who have previously been less engaged in learning.
“She’s also a knowledgeable and kind person who, I believe, will touch many people during her time here,” said Silverstein.
Nobody seems happier to have the extra help than Rabbi Herzfeld.
“On a scale of 1 to 10 of how happy I am, I’m at 15,” he said.
Herzfeld, a charismatic and outspoken progressive Orthodox voice, clearly hopes that his synagogue’s experience will encourage other Orthodox communities to embrace female clergy members.
“Washington, DC is a city on a hill,” he said. “By nature of the fact that what people do in Washington is seen by a wider audience, it’s important to use our geography to help other congregations interested in hiring a maharat to overcome their concerns about doing something new.”
In five or 10 years down the road, Maharat Ruth believes there will be many more women like her. As to where she thinks her career might be at that time, she says she’s not sure.
“I don’t have one specific career path,” she said. “I just want to keep doing what I’m doing — making Judaism accessible to those who seek meaning in it and who want to learn more.”