(WOMENSENEWS)–Sara Hurwitz will never be an NFL linebacker. Elana Stein Hain cannot be the queen of England. Just as these are accepted as unattainable goals, so are certain leadership roles in an Orthodox Jewish synagogue.
Judaism’s Oral Law, which the Orthodox follow stringently, defines formal public prayer as incumbent upon men and optional for women. The reason isn’t as clearly defined; it may be to free women for household and childrearing tasks, or it may be a nod to their innately deeper spirituality. Regardless, the law maintains that people who are not obligated in prayer may not lead those who are.
But even if they can’t earn the titles of "rabbi" or "cantor" as their Conservative and Reform peers do, modern Orthodox women such as Hurwitz and Hain are finding ways to put their professional experience and advanced religious education to work within the traditional synagogue framework.
"They are working to change the culture more than the religious culture," said Jordana Schoor, director of women’s leadership initiatives for the new Center for the Jewish Future at Yeshiva University in New York. "We are working to enable women to grow in the religious community in areas that are obviously open and available to them."
Some of these areas, however, were neither open nor available until quite recently.
Hurwitz, 30, is the religious mentor at Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York. The paid position was created by the synagogue’s rabbi, Avi Weiss, to empower women in a male-dominated structure where prayer is gender-segregated. Though women cannot lead prayers or chant from the Torah, the reader’s platform ("bimah") is accessible from the women’s section. This unusual innovation allows Hurwitz to ascend the bimah to give a discourse on the reading to the entire congregation and then resume her place in the women’s section without walking through the men’s seats.
‘My Role Similar to a Rabbi’
"My role is similar to a rabbi," said Hurwitz, a Barnard College graduate who studied Jewish texts for three years at New York’s Drisha Institute for Jewish Education. "I teach and answer questions pertaining to religious observance. But the biggest part of my job is being a presence and helping women feel a sense of ownership over the service."
On a typical Sabbath, she’ll help a newcomer find the correct page in the prayer book, dance with the mother of a bar mitzvah boy or with a woman to be married that week, and greet every female worshiper.
After four years, Hurwitz senses a big change. "The women’s section sings louder and feels its place in the sanctuary," she said. "They feel more comfortable asking me certain questions than asking the rabbi."
She continues her studies under Weiss’ auspices. "I want to inspire trust in my broad base of knowledge, leading to some sort of meaningful certification or title," she said. "Along with a few other female synagogue professionals, I am seeking to professionalize our role."
Hain, 26, a graduate of Columbia University and of the Graduate Program in Advanced Talmudic Studies for women at Yeshiva University, is the current resident scholar at the Center for the Jewish Future. She lectures on topics including Jewish law, the Bible, theology and contemporary issues.
Filling in Gaps
"All my classes are aimed at filling a lacuna–whether it’s a series comparing Judaism and Islam . . . or a course on the laws of Sabbath–for those who wish to know more," she said. "As an additional resource for people, I hope that I bring my own unique perspective and contributions to the synagogue."
Early this summer, advanced Talmudic studies students were scholars-in-residence at 20 synagogues. "This represents a sea change in the role women can play in the contemporary (Orthodox) Jewish community," said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, dean of the Center for the Jewish Future.
Shulamith Klein, 51, plays a more behind-the-scenes role as the first female president of Congregation Beth Jacob in Atlanta.
Klein was approached in January 2006 by Rabbi Ilan Feldman, leader of the 535-family synagogue.
Given her experience as senior director for the office of risk and insurance services for Emory University and Emory Health Care, Feldman told Klein that she made a promising candidate for president, an administrative office customarily held by men.
Klein already was well respected for her volunteer contributions, which included a seminar for Jewish high school girls on functioning in the business world as an Orthodox woman.
Female Presidency Studied
"He could see no reason that a female presidency wasn’t permissible," Klein recalled. Before the election, Feldman held an open meeting to field questions and concerns. He explained that while male presidents usually occupy an honorary seat on the bimah during services, Klein would remain in the women’s section. She would meet and greet members at the social hour afterward.
Klein won the presidency by an overwhelming majority, and set to work without further fanfare. "While I realize there are halakhic (Jewish legal) and social and political implications for me that need to be discussed and embraced," she stressed, "this has never been about being a woman. I accepted the position out of the belief that I can take the skills and experience I’ve accumulated in the secular world and share them with the community in an effort to make it stronger."
Ten years ago, Gail Billig made history as the first female president of a major Orthodox synagogue. She, too, viewed her position at Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, N.J., as a serious volunteer responsibility in which gender was irrelevant. "I tried to be careful not to step over the bounds of administrative and religious issues," she said. "That was a big defining line."
The public way in which her rabbi vouched for her groundbreaking presidency led to increased acceptance of the model.
In an article titled "Women and Leadership Roles" published by the Manhattan-based Orthodox Caucus in its publication "Women and Orthodoxy: A Call to Discussion," Rabbi Shmuel Goldin revealed in 2004 that he’d reacted negatively to the nominating committee’s proposal of Billig’s candidacy. When it persisted, he did research that left him "convinced that there is no prohibition of women serving as synagogue presidents."
Goldin wrote: "I have learned much from the election process and the very effective tenure which followed. But the most telling feature of the entire story . . . is the fact that a woman rose to a position of leadership within our synagogue, not because she was a woman, nor in order to make a statement
. . . but simply because she was the best candidate for the job."
Abigail Klein Leichman, a journalist who’s lived with her husband and children for 20 years in Teaneck, N.J., is moving to Israel in August.
This series is supported by The Sister Fund.
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