Orthodox shul in Berkeley hires female clergy member

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The first maharat has been hired in the Bay Area. Victoria Sutton, 36, is now serving as a religious leader at Congregation Beth Israel, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Berkeley.

A Hebrew acronym for manhiga hilkhatit rukhanit toranit (a female leader of Jewish law, spirituality and Torah), the title maharat has been bestowed on several Orthodox women, allowing them to serve as clergy in the Modern Orthodox community.

Sutton first visited Beth Israel in June as a scholar-in-residence for Shavuot. It turned out to be auspicious timing, since she was soon to graduate and was weighing job options in the New York area.

Maharat Victoria Sutton

Both she and her husband, Adam Brelow, a medical writer, found Berkeley “extremely exciting.” She found the Jewish community “very warm, welcoming and engaged, and really wanting to grow and learn.”

Rabbi Yonatan Cohen said his shul was looking for an assistant rabbi, and when he met Sutton, he realized that she would fit right in.

“Her visit caught me by surprise in a good way, because it raised questions of ‘What if?’ and ‘How would this look and work in our community?’ ” he said. “It became clear that this would be a natural step for a community that is used to having strong women as educators and role models.”

He added, “She’s fulfilling responsibilities that many women or teachers in the community have led in the past. We’re just solidifying what was already happening.”

The institution that Sutton attended, Yeshivat Maharat, in the Bronx, N.Y., is the brainchild of Rabbi Avi Weiss, who has courted controversy by constantly pushing the boundaries of Modern Orthodoxy. The liberal Yeshivat Chovevei Torah he founded — of which Cohen is a graduate — ordains rabbis who are more liberal than the Orthodox establishment, and while they find jobs in communities like those in Oakland and Berkeley, they are not as welcome in more mainstream Orthodox synagogues.

When the first woman, Sara Hurwitz, was ordained in June 2009, Weiss gave her the title “Rabba,” infuriating many, which is how the title “Maharat” came to be.

Since then, Yeshivat Maharat has ordained five women in two graduating classes; all five, plus eight current students, have been placed in jobs or internships at eight Orthodox synagogues in the United States and one in Montreal.

And mainstream Orthodoxy approves none of it.

“We do not accept the ordination of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of title,” Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, president of the Rabbinical Council of America, told the Forward last year.

Growing up in New Jersey in an Orthodox family, Sutton never imagined she’d one day answer to “Maharat Victoria” or “Maharat Sutton.”

A biology major at Barnard College, she at first postponed graduate school to obtain a grand diploma in pastry arts from the French Culinary Institute.

After spending a few years in that field, she began studying Jewish texts after a long hiatus from such study. Around the same time, she heard about Yeshivat Maharat.

“It was an opportunity to spend hours every day with traditional Jewish texts and gaining skills and mastery over talmudic and halachic [Jewish legal] material, some of which I had not been exposed to at this level,” she said. “It also had a focus on practical, professional training. And I especially was drawn by the emphasis on the study of text and tradition in a way to be able to transmit it to others.”

She never considered leaving the Orthodox movement to become a rabbi, she said.

Her title at Beth Israel is director of education and community engagement. As such, she will teach adult education classes, work with the youth director and with Cohen on various lifecycle events, and give sermons. While halachah dictates that a male must serve as a witness at a wedding, there’s nothing to say that a woman can’t perform other aspects of the ceremony, so such questions about her role are still being determined. Cohen said she officiated at an unveiling several weeks ago.

When asked whether he thought they were doing anything groundbreaking, Cohen responded, “This is a natural step in who we are and what we do. We were the first Orthodox congregation in the country to have a woman president [Katy Tornheim in 1973]. Part of our ethos has always been honoring and including women for the amazing qualities they bring to the community and the ways they open the pathways to connect with God. It’s very natural for a community such as ours to have a maharat on our team.”

Sutton said she had experienced nothing but positive feedback from her own family. She added she was especially grateful to Zelda Stern, a founding board member of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance “whose generous two-year grant helped make this a full-time position enabling me to devote my energies completely to CBI.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."