July 6, 2013

Orthodox woman gains leading role in synagogue

The first female spiritual leader in a U.S. Orthodox synagogue breaks ground, but gender barriers remain.


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Ruth Balinsky Friedman, who now teaches at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education in New York, will become the first female spiritual leader at an Orthodox synagogue in the U.S. when she becomes the maharat next month at Ohev Sholom synagogue in Washington, D.C.

Jennifer S. Altman/The Washington Post

The new position is being presented as something akin to an assistant rabbi. When Friedman starts at Ohev Sholom on Aug. 1, she will give sermons and lectures on the Torah, shape programming and serve as a pastoral counselor.

At a synagogue filled with women who work as judges, doctors and political operatives, the step to a maharat wasn't huge, and Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld said there has been little controversy. That said, multiple requests to interview members of the 300-family synagogue were turned down. A couple of members agreed to be interviewed.

Alisha Klapholz, 32, said modern Orthodox women in the area need learned females they can go to for personal issues, including Judaism's detailed laws concerning sex and menstruation. Klapholz is getting married later this summer, and she said she had to go to New York to find a scholarly modern Orthodox woman she could relate to.

"She'll be good for the community. A lot of the opposition is fear of the unknown," said Klapholz.

Only time will tell whether Orthodox Jews as a whole will embrace women as public spiritual leaders.

"Clergy is built on relationship. That's how it's effective in general. And Maharat Ruth will be very effective," Herzfeld said.

Growing up the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi in Evanston, Ill., Friedman never saw women in spiritual leadership roles, she said.

Friedman was taking advanced Torah study classes in 2009 when Yeshivat Maharat was founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss, the leader of a mega-synagogue in New York called the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. Weiss is considered the father of "open Orthodoxy," which prioritizes interfaith efforts and expanded leadership roles for women.

Steve Lieberman, who goes to Ohev Sholom, said it's important to keep being innovative about welcoming Jews at a time when Americans are fickle and searching for spirituality.

"The typical argument is 'mesorah' -- tradition. When someone says 'tradition,' they mean the problem isn't Jewish law. That's why this is important -- so in 20 years it won't be contrary to Jewish tradition," Lieberman said. "It's just like when people saw Jackie Robinson wearing number 42. It made it easier for the next generation."


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