Orthodox women blaze path to the pulpit

When Dina Najman was hired to lead Kehillat Orach Eliezer, a traditional Orthodox-style congregation, it was hailed as a major, if controversial, step forward for the status of women in the Orthodox movement.

Barely a year later, the progression of women’s leadership positions within the movement, in which Najman was an early pioneer, is being sanctioned by significant institutions.

Two venerable Orthodox synagogues in Manhattan have hired graduates of an advanced women’s Talmud program at Yeshiva University to posts that afford them many of the public responsibilities traditionally reserved for rabbis.

In one case, Congregation Shearith Israel, commonly known as the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, decided recently not to hire a new associate rabbi, instead giving many of those responsibilities to Lynn Kaye, 26, a program graduate.

“I think that my hiring is good news because it reflects one congregation’s willingness to allow women to contribute to Jewish life and to the community as well,” Kaye said. “There are many women who would love to serve the Jewish community, and I wish there were more opportunities for them to do that.”

The hiring of women to leadership roles at Orthodox congregations is not without precedent. At least four U.S. Orthodox synagogues have placed women in staff positions dealing principally with education and pastoral care rather than ritual roles like leading services.

But the arrival of women

at such Modern Orthodox mainstays as Shearith Israel and the Jewish Center in Manhattan, which recently hired a woman to a two-year post as resident scholar, and the support they enjoy from the flagship institution of the Modern Orthodox movement, marks the phenomenon’s transition from the fringe to the mainstream.

“It’s really a huge change,” said Robin Bodner, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. “We’re witnessing the emergence of one of the most exciting phenomena in the Modern Orthodox community today — that of capable, learned women taking on significant spiritual leadership roles. And it’s a progression from the more liberal periphery to the more conservative center.”

Though their precise responsibilities vary, the positions women are carving out for themselves within Orthodox synagogues tend to focus on education. Some deliver sermons on Shabbat mornings before the entire congregation and provide counseling or spiritual guidance. None lead services or read from the Torah.

A generation ago, efforts to offer greater opportunities for women in Orthodox synagogues centered on separate women’s prayer groups, a movement that appears to have lost momentum in recent years. Rising in its stead have been so-called partnership minyans in which women play certain limited roles — often including reading from the Torah — in an otherwise typical Orthodox service.

Filling paid leadership positions in established synagogues, it is widely agreed, represents something else entirely.

Inevitably, women such as Kaye fuel speculation that Orthodox ordination of female rabbis might be nearing. It’s an issue that even progressive leaders broach with extreme caution.

Rachel Kohl Finegold, the programming and ritual director at the Orthodox Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago, says that placing women in leadership positions is a worthy end in itself. And while she doesn’t believe the trend represents an end, Finegold worries about her career prospects after she leaves her current position.

“I don’t think we’ve arrived,” she said. “The reality of my situation is that in X number of years, when I want to move on to whatever the next logical step would be in my career, there is no next logical step. It’s what some of us call the ‘glass mechitzah.'”

Ben Harris

Ben Harris is a JTA correspondent.