Toward the end of first grade, my class began preparing for a siddur party where each student would receive their own inscribed prayer book. Part of the celebration was a class play. As the teacher handed out parts, she asked who among us wanted to have the biggest role in the performance, the rabbi. Hands immediately shot up — and when I looked around I realized that I was the only girl among a sea of boys who wanted the part. And wouldn’t you know it, the role went to me. On the big day, I got dressed up in a brown striped suit, a black hat, and a long dark polyester beard. Why? Because in the late 70s at my Orthodox coed community day school, no one could imagine a rabbi looking any different than the stereotypical male typecast, let alone female.
For nearly a quarter of a century, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) has been advocating for expanding women’s rights and opportunities within the framework of halakha to build a vibrant and equitable Orthodox community. As Executive Director of JOFA I’m proud of the work we have done to advance women’s synagogue leadership. Our Devorah Scholar program spearheaded by Ann & Jeremy Pava of Micah Philanthropies has helped to motivate synagogues across North America to place women in newly created spiritual leadership roles to enable communities across North America to benefit from women’s scholarship.
Despite barriers placed before us, and the many added hurdles women still have to jump over, today we have come to embrace that clergy figures are not limited to men alone. Dedicated Orthodox women who are committed leaders have helped open doors and forge new paths. Graduates and alumni of Yeshivat Maharat, Ohr Torah Stone, Drisha, Nishmat and GPATS and other higher learning institutions for women are leading the way and modeling different forms of leadership in synagogues, schools and communal institutions. This spring, between Yeshivat Maharat and Ohr Torah Stone, nine women completed intensive learning programs that better position them to become leaders. Already Rabbanit Dasi Fruchter (also a Devorah Scholar), Rabbi Dina Najman and Rosh Kehillah Mijal Bitton are leading Orthodox congregations in the United States The most recent development was the hiring of Rabbanit Shira Marili Mirvis at “Shirat HaTamar” congregation in Efrat as a spiritual leader. These are all important and exciting steps in the right direction.
Over the last few years, women’s spiritual leadership in the United States and Israel has been growing. The value added by creating a space for women spiritual leaders who will serve as role models in Orthodox synagogues is immeasurable. The positive ripple effects will benefit community members, both young and old for generations to come. As Orthodox educational institutions and synagogues work towards changing the current status quo, young girls will see themselves reflected in spiritual leadership roles and will be able to find female-identified mentors and inspirational models to emulate.
Is there still work to be done? Of course. Job availability and pay equity pose one set of challenges, as does ageism and sexism. But now we have a growing number of smart, inspiring and learned women holding leadership positions in key religious institutions who will help lead the way. And we need to engage whenever a voice chimes in to say that there is no room for women leaders, because it is profoundly untrue. And, it makes that voice sound both insecure and perhaps even (dare I say), foolish because they are so out of touch with reality. JOFA has long championed advancing women’s Judaic and text-based learning, teaching and leadership opportunities in formal and informal educational settings. Halakha continues to provide an expansion of opportunities rather than obstacles for ongoing spiritual growth for individuals, institutions and communities at large. It is not “unOrthodox” or a challenge of halakhic norms to ensure, support and expand women’s access to learn and to lead. Instead, we must all work together to change the minds of those who refuse to recognize that women enrich and strengthen Orthodox communities.
Every time we place a woman in a leadership role in our religious institutions, we are modeling positive growth to our membership and beyond. Looking back at my Orthodox upbringing, and as I look at the current and growing landscape that surrounds us, what once felt like a dream and impossible to envision as a child, is not only possible — it’s a reality.