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In a break with tradition, Orthodox Jewish women are leading synagogues

Rabbanit Hadas “Dasi” Fruchter poses for portrait at Beth Sholom Congregation on Friday in Potomac, Md. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Taking on positions as clergy in a tradition where women have never been clergy before, they have adopted a variety of titles. Some call themselves rosh kehilah, meaning “head of the community.” Some go by maharatRabbanitRabba. And even rabbi.

That’s right. There are female rabbis now in Orthodox Judaism.

Not many, to be sure. Since Rabbi Avi Weiss privately ordained Rabba Sara Hurwitz in 2009 and declared her the first female Orthodox clergywoman — then founded a school, Yeshivat Maharat, to train more — his school has ordained 21 women. A handful of other women have been ordained privately, before and after.

That’s tiny compared with the 1,000 Orthodox rabbis in the global Rabbinical Council of America, which refuses admission to women.

But this small group of women is becoming far more significant in Orthodox Jewish life. Women lead synagogues now in New York and in Massachusetts.

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On Saturday, Rabbanit Hadas “Dasi” Fruchter, who has been an assistant clergy member on the staff of Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, announced she would move to Philadelphia to found her own Orthodox synagogue there. She is opening the new congregation with a grant from a new nonprofit established to seed female-friendly Orthodox synagogues, a sign of the rapidly growing institutional support for women in Orthodox leadership.

“I am blessed and so excited to be able to do what I was made to do. It used to be not an option for me,” Fruchter said this week. Once she dreamed as a teenager of marrying a rabbi, because she didn’t think she could ever be one. Now, in her office, she has two certificates of rabbinic ordination, hanging across from each other: her own, and her grandfather’s, from when he became an Orthodox rabbi in 1940. “I think about this amazing thing, that I am able to do what he did.”

The Orthodox movement, which preaches strict adherence to the age-old Jewish laws such as kosher food, Sabbath observance and separation between genders, is a small but significant denomination, representing about 10 percent of American Jews. The far larger and more liberal denominations have ordained women as clergy for decades.

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Orthodoxy is divided into various movements with different levels of tolerance for female leadership; these female clergy tend to belong to those such as Modern Orthodoxy and Open Orthodoxy.

The Orthodox Union, a major umbrella organization for U.S. synagogues, has taken a strong stance against female clergy. A committee of seven male rabbis appointed to consider the subject concluded this year, in a densely footnoted 17-page argument, that women should not hold any clergy roles.

The detailed opinion gave numerous reasons, including the importance of adhering to tradition; a prohibition in the Talmud, the commentary on the Torah that elucidates Jewish law, that forbids a woman from being a kosher butcher, which the rabbis now believe should be extended to all religious authority; and concern for the modesty of a woman preaching to men.

The Orthodox Union did not respond to requests for comment on Friday; nor did any of the seven rabbis who wrote the opinion.

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But Judaism has no hierarchical leader, such as a pope or an archbishop, so despite the organization’s opinion, female-led synagogues are springing up. And Orthodox Jews are attending them.

Rabbi Lila Kagedan leads Walnut Street Synagogue in Chelsea, Mass. Rabbanit Adena Berkowitz founded Kol HaNeshamah in New York with a male cantor. And Fruchter is now opening a shul in Philadelphia.

A 28-year-old Washington-area native, Fruchter said she chose Philadelphia because the local Orthodox community is growing. She plans to open her new synagogue, for which she’s still finding a location, in time for the fall holidays in 2019.

As she has started pitching the idea, prospective congregants have asked how she will lead services without breaking Orthodox prohibitions. As a woman, she will give her sermon from the female side of the gender-divided sanctuary. She won’t count as one of the 10 participants necessary for a quorum for certain prayers. She won’t lead most prayers, though in Orthodox services, congregants, not rabbis, typically lead prayers anyway. (The rabbi’s primary roles — teaching, providing pastoral care and answering questions about the rigors of observing Jewish law — are all conceivably open to women, advocates say.)

“I assure them it’s going to be traditional, halachic: fully in line with Jewish law in terms of Modern Orthodox understanding,” Fruchter said.

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Her synagogue is funded by Start-Up Shul, a new organization aiming to create gender-inclusive Orthodox synagogues. In the model of Christian church-planting efforts, said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld (the leader of Washington’s Ohev Sholom and a co-founder of Start-Up Shul), the organization will fund two synagogues this year and hopes to increase to four or five new synagogues per year in the future.

“We want to support entrepreneurial rabbis — maharats, rabbanits, whatever they call themselves — who are going to create a synagogue supportive of women in leadership positions in the clergy. . . . This will inspire more women and more men who are believers in this type of Orthodoxy to go into the rabbinate,” Herzfeld said.

While synagogues like Fruchter’s might not be permitted in the Orthodox Union — the organization questioned, but decided not to sanction, Herzfeld’s synagogue and several others that already employed female clergy before the organization’s opinion against it this year — Herzfeld believes most Orthodox Jews don’t care.

“Without question, most Orthodox Jews are absolutely ready. Her synagogue is going to be bursting through the roof within five years,” he predicted. “She’s such a talent. People are going to be coming from all over Philadelphia, just to be taught by her.”

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Rosh Kehilah Dina Najman said that when she became the spiritual leader of New York’s Kehilat Orach Eliezer — which chose to hire her in 2006 after considering male rabbis for the position — people asked members of her synagogue if they were willing to attend a shul with a female leader. But once these skeptics attended a service themselves, they were often persuaded.

“When I initially did some weddings, people said, ‘What is going on here?’ When people saw, ‘Hey, this is halachic,’ they had to see it for themselves. . . . They saw this is a halachic service. ‘So she speaks. So she gives advice. So she gives the leadership. Now I understand. This is something that doesn’t hurt my sensibilities,’ ” said Najman. Now the leader of the Kehilah in Riverdale, Najman says the number of male Orthodox rabbis who accept her as a peer has gone from a “handful” to “hundreds.”

Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, a leading Orthodox feminist, has observed the same accelerating acceptance of this still-nascent and ostracized group. “Time is a big deal. I think change takes time,” she said. “The more that you meet these women, you hear their Torah, you see them responding to crisis and simply being there, you realize what we could be losing out on.”

She described female Orthodox clergy who ministered to victims’ families in Las Vegas after the mass shooting there and who joined in Black Lives Matter marches. Young children, she said, will grow up knowing only this model of Orthodox Judaism. “That’s exciting. In general, the notion of all this being normalized is extremely heartening,” she said. “I did not think the landscape would be what it is today, 20 years ago.”

Female Orthodox leadership is so new that nearly every rabba or maharat can claim to be a first in one way or another. But Fruchter isn’t looking just to break barriers; she’s looking to become the norm. “The second, I think, sometimes is cooler than the first,” she said. “It shows that there’s a trend starting.”

This post has been updated.