NEW YORK — Last week, a fact-finding mission dropped in on Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman at Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue in Washington. They asked her what she does at the Orthodox synagogue. Then they asked her to drop her title.
“They said it would not be in keeping with the conclusions of the rabbinic panel,” she said.
That panel of the Orthodox Union, an umbrella Orthodox Jewish organization, in February issued a Jewish legal ruling that bars women from serving as clergy or in a position of spiritual authority.
Four O.U. synagogues have women serving in formal clergy functions, including Friedman at Ohev Sholom and Maharat Hadas Fruchter at Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac.
Friedman said the O.U. emissaries, none of whom was a rabbi himself, had no suggestion for what she should change her title to.
What if she dropped Maharat — an acronym for “Jewish legal, spiritual and Torah leader” — and went by Refrigerator instead?
“It seems like they would not be comfortable if a title connected you with a position of leadership in the community,” she said.
The delegation also visited Fruchter, who said she was unable to discuss the meeting’s specifics. Reached by Washington Jewish Week, Beth Sholom Rabbi Nissan Antine said he was “not going to talk about the conversation.”
The delegation met with Alissa Thomas-Newborn, who uses the title rabbanit, and Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky at Bnai David-Judea in Los Angeles earlier this month. While Kanefsky would not discuss the meeting’s specifics, he confirmed that Thomas-Newborn’s title and job description were the primary issue.
At press time, the delegation had yet to meet with the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, N.Y., which employs Ramie Smith, whose title is rabba.
All four women are graduates of Yeshivat Maharat, a liberal Orthodox seminary that ordains women as clergy. The maharat title was coined by the seminary’s founder, Rabbi Avi Weiss. In practice, graduates take a range of titles, including rabba and rabbanit.
After her May 17 meeting, Friedman said that she, along with the synagogue’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, will not agree to a change of title.
Friedman said the delegation did not raise any other issues with her professional responsibilities aside from her title. The O.U.’s ruling, likewise, outlines a range of functions women can serve at synagogues, but objects to their taking on positions of authority akin to rabbis.
“They’re not comfortable with the title,” Friedman said. “It’s a pretty transparent way of saying, ‘We don’t have a problem with the work you do. We’re not comfortable recognizing that you have a title that connotes a certain respect and education and professionalism.’”
The members of the O.U.’s delegation are Executive Vice President Allen Fagin, President Mark Bane and Martin Nachimson, who finished his term as president earlier this year. Per O.U. policy, none of the three are commenting on the meetings. An O.U. spokeswoman said she could not comment.
From the O.U.’s standpoint, the meetings have been preliminary, fact-finding sessions. There has been no decision rendered on what steps the group might take should it feel the synagogues are not complying with the ruling. But Herzfeld of Ohev Shalom said that the delegation did not exclude the possibility of expulsion from the O.U. over the issue.
“It felt like a threat because they sent three men to our congregation and interrogated us about our practices,” he said. “And they said everything is on the table, and they said we’re not in compliance.”
Kanefsky said the best outcome would be to “agree to disagree.”
“I’m an optimistic person, but at the same time I could not describe to you what that compromise would look like,” he said. “We are not going to make any changes to Rabbanit Alissa’s title or job description.”
When he founded Yeshivat Maharat in 2009, Weiss created the title in order to avoid the issue of ordaining women as rabbis. But that has not happened. The Rabbinical Council of America, an Orthodox group, banned synagogues from hiring women clergy in 2015 and the O.U. followed suit this year.
Friedman said the whole debate creates a negative image for modern Orthodoxy.
“I’m sad for Orthodoxy that there’s so much attention devoted to what women can’t do,” she said.
“Maybe we can think of a more constructive identity for our movement than ‘women don’t do stuff in Orthodoxy.’ It’s destructive in many ways.”
She said the next move belongs to the O.U. “They’re going to go back to their rabbinic panel and then report back to us what they discussed.”
—JTA News and Features