A graduate of a women’s seminary that has been the cause of controversy in the Orthodox world has been hired by Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah, an Orthodox synagogue in Potomac.
When Hadas Fruchter becomes assistant spiritual leader there in July, she will be the second graduate of Yeshivat Maharat to work at a Washington-area Orthodox synagogue teaching Torah, offering pastoral care and bringing members closer to Judaism.
Yeshivat Maharat was founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss, the force behind of the Open Orthodox movement who has called for the ordination of women. The Rabbinical Council of America, America’s main modern Orthodox rabbinical association, voted in October to ban the hiring of clergywomen by its members, reiterating nearly identical positions it made in 2010 and 2013.
But Beth Sholom’s leaders say that by hiring Fruchter, the synagogue is filling a staff position, not making a statement.
“She is the most qualified person for what we were looking for,” said congregation president David Felsen. “I don’t believe it’s a political statement. I really don’t. We were looking for an assistant spiritual leader.”
A Silver Spring native, Fruchter, 26, was one of seven candidates the congregation considered, a group consisting of five men and two women. When Beth Sholom narrowed the search down to three, Fruchter and two men remained.
Candidates were drawn from a number of institutions, including Yeshiva University and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, the Open Orthodox seminary for men.
Like his mentor Weiss, and unlike the rabbis of the RCA, Rabbi Nissan Antine of Beth Sholom sees the position of maharat firmly within Jewish tradition.
“Orthodox Judaism has long had strong female spiritual leaders,” he said. “They’re called rebbetzin.”
What Yeshivat Maharat and other Orthodox institutions that train women scholars are doing is professionalizing the work, he explained. Now women will get paid to lead and they will not need to be married to a rabbi to do their job.
Weiss chose the name after the first woman he ordained, Sara Hurwitz, took the title rabba, or female rabbi. The move sparked condemnation in the Orthodox world.
Weiss backtracked and future graduates were given maharat — an acronym meaning female spiritual, legal and Torah leader — as an improvised substitute.
Graduates are encouraged to work with their employers on a suitable title. In a Feb. 26 letter to the congregation, Felsen wrote that the new assistant spiritual leader will be addressed as “Maharat Fruchter.”
Liberal Judaism has long ordained women rabbis. Antine said the concern in the Orthodox world over female rabbis is that embracing them will lead to a slippery slope where “there is no difference between woman and men.”
The RCA’s October ruling forbade ordaining “women into the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title used” and hiring or ratifying “the hiring of a woman into a rabbinic position at an Orthodox institution.”
In November, Agudath Israel of America, representing haredi Jews, ruled that Open Orthodox institutions are not part of Orthodoxy.
In liberal Judaism, male and female rabbis play interchangeable roles, Antine acknowledged. “And that’s not the case in our shul.”
A maharat may not act as a witness of a ketubah signing, serve on a religious court or be counted in a minyan, all roles reserved for men.
At the same time, “you’d be hard-pressed to find an Orthodox rabbi to say [a maharat is] forbidden,” Antine said.
The first maharat to work in the Washington area, Ruth Balinsky Friedman, was hired by Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue in 2013.
Antine said that Fruchter’s job is to serve both male and female congregants. “It’s a very positive value added to be able to reach out to the entire spiritual community.”
Fruchter grew up in what she described as a “fabulously Torah-loving home” and graduated from Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy.
Growing up, “I didn’t know that a maharat existed,” she said. “I thought that someday I would marry a rabbi.”
During studies at Queens College, “I was involved in the Jewish social justice world,” she said.
She took a Torah class with Rabba Sara Hurwitz, who had become dean of Yeshivat Maharat, and realized “this world might have room for me.”
After graduation, she met with Hurwitz again for an informational interview about Yeshivat Maharat.
“At the end of the interview, it was so obvious what I wanted to do in the world,” she explained. “It was a quick decision.”
Fruchter will graduate in June. In July, she’ll marry a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School.
Despite the discouragement of hiring women with her training in much of the Orthodox world, Fruchter saw “more doors opening” during the job search that led her to Beth Sholom. “It hasn’t closed off a lot of synagogues.”
And indeed, in January, Mount Freedom Jewish Center, an Open Orthodox synagogue in New Jersey, added a Yeshivat Maharat graduate to its “spiritual leadership team.”
Lila Kagedan goes by the title “rabbi.”