Maharat Ruth Friedman wraps up a decade at Ohev Sholom

Maharat Ruth Friedman (front, center) and others visit a nearby church that was vandalized with hateful speech. Photo courtesy of Maharat Ruth Friedman

In late July, Maharat Ruth Friedman will be leaving Ohev Sholom in the District, after a pathbreaking decade during which she became the first female clergy in the Washington-area Orthodox community and the first woman to become sole leader of an Orthodox synagogue.

Friedman was a member of the first cohort to graduate from Yeshivat Maharat, the first Orthodox seminary for ordaining women. Students of the Bronx-based yeshivah are trained in Jewish law, spirituality and texts. Her presence and position at Ohev Sholom ushered in an era of more openness toward females in Orthodox positions.

“Ruth, in a facade of quietly and unassumingly teaching Torah, paskening [ruling on Jewish legal matters] and modeling Orthodox female clergy leadership, you have defined for me, and for my family, what a maharat can be,” congregant Shmuel Nadata said in a speech to Friedman at her farewell lunch on June 4.

Despite being raised by an Orthodox rabbi as a father, Friedman never considered a career in clergy. Female clergy wasn’t an option in American Orthodoxy before the launch of Yeshivat Maharat in 2009. The title “maharat” was created as a placeholder and alternative to rabbah and rabbanit, the female equivalents of rabbi.
Maharat Ruth Friedman. Courtesy Maharat Ruth Friedman

When she learned about the seminary training women to be halachic leaders, Friedman had an epiphany.

“Other movements had women rabbis, but not Orthodoxy. And so it really never occurred to me to do this until my program was created,” Friedman said, “Then I was like, oh, that’s what I want to do with my life.”

Most of the organized Orthodox world rejects the notion of female clergy. Friedman was attacked online after a photo circulated of her wearing a red dress, as the color is seen as immodest in some religious circles.

In 2017, the Orthodox Union, an umbrella group representing Modern Orthodox communities, including Ohev Sholom, issued a Jewish legal ruling that bars women from serving as clergy or in a position of spiritual authority. An OU delegation visited Friedman and asked her to drop her title.

The following year, the OU announced that it will not penalize its member synagogues that already employ women as clergy, but it has reaffirmed a policy that prohibits other synagogues from hiring women in rabbinic positions.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, it’s so not worth it to go into the clergy as a woman. Who wants to deal with all this nonsense?’” Friedman said, “But then you see like the people who are more comfortable coming to shul or the girls who now feel like they can give a d’var Torah because they’ve seen other women do it. That to me is what this is about; dealing with the politics of everything is just collateral damage.”

Newly ordained, Friedman joined Ohev Sholom in 2013 as a two-year fellow. Friedman taught classes, did pastoral work and helped build the congregation’s mikvah. Friedman stayed, rising from assistant clergy to associate clergy. Last year, she became Ohev Sholom’s sole clergy after Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld left to open a yeshivah.

As the synagogue’s halachic authority, Friedman’s responsibilities have been “everything,” she said. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Friedman organized meal deliveries, ensured the elderly members were supported, and reached out to congregants to offer help. She oversees lifecycle events like births and b’nai mitzvah, cultivating what she calls an “alive” environment and making halachic decisions that are at the core of Orthodox Judaism.

Some of Friedman’s most prominent halachic contributions have been about the congregation’s mikvah.

“Orthodox mikvahs can oftentimes be a place where the protocols follow one rav [rabbi]. They really become a place where someone can’t necessarily own their own experience,” Friedman said, “We decided that, yes, we have an Orthodox mikvah. It’s kosher according to our standards. There are Orthodox Jews who want it, but it’s not our place to dictate to other people how they should use the mikvah.”

Friedman never entered the Orthodox space intending for her identity to be a statement, but it has nonetheless been a hallmark of her time at Ohev Sholom. As a maharat, Friedman said she can talk to women about their mikvah needs and experiences that they may not want to express to a male rabbi. Friedman has also been a resource for discussing fertility and niddah, or menstruation.

“I just find it so helpful to see someone who like looks like me, who I know is struggling with things I struggle with as a woman in this world,” said congregant Rachel Engelhart.

Congregant Shmuel Nadata found that having a female clergy member helped to shape his children’s synagogue expectations.

“I have kids who grew up with her and who, at a young age would go to other shuls and be like, ‘Where’s the maharat? Why is there just a man?’ I think that’s a wonderful thing,” Nadata said.

Nadata and Engelhart said they would like Ohev Sholom to continue having a female clergy presence.

That’s likely to continue in some form, said the congregation’s president, Jacob Einhorn. While there are no plans to hire an ordained maharat, the synagogue is served by a rabbinic intern from Yeshivat Maharat.

Friedman plans to spend the coming year with her husband and three children in Nairobi, Kenya, fulfilling a longtime dream of living abroad.

“My husband’s company has an office there,” Friedman explained, “There’s a Jewish community. It’s established. It’s not like we’re moving to a place that doesn’t have any Jewish infrastructure. And the timing is good. Our kids are young, and I’m between jobs.”When the year is over, the Friedmans plan to settle in Silver Spring’s Kemp Mill neighborhood.

Einhorn said that after a decade, Ohev Sholom’s first woman clergy has left her mark.

“Many of our members do not know an Ohev Sholom without Maharat Friedman,” Einhorn said in an email. “She has been a tremendous role model for our children, and a great educator and spiritual leader. We are going to miss her.” ■

Molly Zatman is a freelance writer.

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