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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Orthodox Madame Rabbi

Rachel Kohl Finegold

This past Rosh Hashanah holiday, Rachel Kohl Finegold, 33, one of the very few Orthodox Jewish women to be ordained as a rabbi, gave a one of her first sermons at Montreal's Congregation Shaar Hashomayim. 

After her speech, she walked back down to the women’s section, where she was greeted with warm welcomes and congratulations. One woman grabbed her hand, looked her in the eye and said, “We’ve been waiting for you.”

“Once people meet us, they realize we’re actually not strange or different. We’re just like them,” said Kohl Finegold, who previously worked for six years as an Education and Ritual Director at a congregation in Chicago. “We’re comfortable in the Orthodox community and we want to help it move forward in a positive way.”

While Kohl Finegold is a full member of the clergy at her synagogue, the title of Rabbi is not freely passed to women. 

Instead she is referred to as a Maharat, Hebrew for a “spiritual leader.” Despite this, Kohl Finegold is one of the only women in recent years to break Orthodox Judaism's glass ceiling and become a member of its religious boys' club, which has shut out women for centuries.

Kohl Finegold and two other women made history in June by being the first women to graduate from the Yeshiva Maharat—a four-year program created in New York in 2009  to ordain Orthodox women as spiritual leaders and in the Jewish community.

While many speculated that the graduates would never find jobs in a male-driven Orthodox clergy, the school actually received offers for more positions then there were women to fill them. 

Due to the demand, said Yeshiva Maharat’s head, Rabbi Jeffrey Fox,the school now has 16 female students currently enrolled, some from as far away as Poland and Australia, and 21 inquiries from women for next year's class— 10 of whom Fox thinks will actually apply, and four of whom will make the final cut.

“They all have to be brave because they are doing something different, but they are quite humble in their quest for change,” said Fox, who has been with the school since its inception. “They want to teach and lead, not change the world.”

Whether she wanted to or not, Sara Hurwitz, the creator of the Yeshiva Maharat, did change the world when she became the first Orthodox woman to ever be ordained in the U.S. in 2009, although the move prompted international backlash from many right-wing organizations like the The Agudath Israel Council, which called the program “a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition,” and the Rabbinical Council of America, which to this day issues a statement that reads “We cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.”

“The community at large is considering new possibilities, but not every synagogue will want to have a female presence,” said Hurwitz, who decided to change her original title of “Rabba” to Maharat, after a backlash in the Orthodox community.

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