Sara Hurwitz is America’s first Orthodox “rabba”;
with few exceptions, she has managed to achieve parity
within Judaism’s last old boy network.
“Come gather ’round people wherever you roam, and admit that the waters around you have grown and accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone…”
— Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A-Changin”
Dylan’s 1964 lyrics, penned against the backdrop of America’s civil rights movement and escalation in Vietnam, continue to resonate even today. At present, Riverdale, N.Y., is the epicenter of an ongoing debate over what role women can — or should — play in the rabbinate; a debate spurred by the entree of a woman who has inadvertently challenged the status quo.
The controversy, which primarily (although not exclusively) has taken up residence in the New York Tri-State area, made its way to Detroit when SAJE (Seminars for Adult Jewish Enrichment) began making plans for Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the first Orthodox woman to be conferred as “rabba” (the female form of the masculine title, “rabbi”) to speak in April at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield.
“Her story was so surprising,” remembers SAJE co-chair Sue Birnholtz, who first heard Hurwitz speak in New York several years ago. “I had no idea there might exist within the Orthodox community a woman — or women — who would push the envelope to even think about a woman rabbi, much less actually realize that goal.
“My image of Orthodox women was that they were smart, well-educated members of their community, but they were content with their role. This new idea blew me away; and Sara Hurwitz, when I heard her, turned out to be a modest, well-spoken woman — not a wild-eyed boundaries breaker,” Birnholtz added.
SAJE officials, who declined to comment on the record, did acknowledge that bringing Hurwitz to speak in Detroit was not without controversy. A few community leaders, including members of the rabbinate, were concerned that Hurwitz’s “rabba” title could offend some in the Orthodox community; they pressured SAJE to alter its plans to publicize the lecture.
A Better Life
Hurwitz’s story begins in apartheid South Africa, where she was born and lived until just after her bat mitzvah. In 1989, Hurwitz’s parents made the decision to depart for the United States, both to give their children a “better life,” explained Hurwitz, and because of the political situation in South Africa.
Hurwitz recalls in vivid detail the scene when her family gathered, only one year later, to watch Nelson Mandela’s release from prison on television.
“My parents were sobbing because they wanted to be part of this revolution, wanted to be part of this magnificent change that was taking place in their country,” she said. “Again, it sent me that message of ‘what’s possible.’”
While Hurwitz does not describe herself as a revolutionary, she agrees that she has, to some extent, internalized the message of her birthplace. “At a very early age, my parents sent me the message of tolerance and equality,” she says. “They gave me this notion that all people deserve to have equal rights and that we should be accepting of others — no matter who they are.”
When asked whether she ever had an “aha” moment about her decision to become a rabbi, she instead responded in her typically understated way: “I just kind of gravitated toward it.”
Before entering college, Hurwitz took a vocational test at her parents’ insistence, the results of which indicated that she was best suited for clergy.
“At the time, we all laughed because there was no such thing as Orthodox women in the clergy,” she says.
While her family always affiliated with the Orthodox movement, over the years Hurwitz herself became more observant of Halachah (Jewish law) and ensconced herself deeply in the Orthodox community and in Jewish learning.
After high school, Hurwitz attended Midreshet Lindenbaum in Israel, then Barnard College in New York. She became active in a number of Jewish organizations, often as a teacher.
After graduating from college, she won a fellowship to study religion at the Drisha Institute’s Scholars Circle program in New York. Upon completion of her post-graduate studies, Hurwitz began interning at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, in the Bronx, after a conversation with the synagogue’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Avi Weiss. Never known to shrink from controversy, Weiss is often cited as one of America’s most prominent rabbis and outspoken activists.
“I had my foot in the door, I was beginning to work in a synagogue and I loved it,” declares Hurwitz.
After she had been working at HIR for about a year, Hurwitz and Weiss “started dreaming about … what it would take for a woman to be accepted as a full member of the [Orthodox] clergy.”
“I don’t think either of us knew what it looked like,” Hurwitz says, “but one thing we were both certain about — I needed to have a certain number of years of learning under my belt before I would be accepted as an authority.”
For the next seven years, Hurwitz devoted herself to the study of Jewish texts while she also continued her work at HIR. “I got lots of on-the-job training,” Hurwitz quips.
In 2009, Hurwitz had successfully completed all of the relevant semichah (ordination) testing that was required of her male counterparts. Weiss announced his protege was capable of doing “95 percent of what other rabbis do” and, in a conferral ceremony (“we were very careful about language,” Hurwitz emphasizes), named her a maharat, a Hebrew acronym that describes a religious, spiritual and scholarly leader.
“The reaction to the title “maharat” was very quiet,” Hurwitz remembers. One year later, Weiss decided to confer upon Hurwitz the title “rabba.” “This will make it clear to everyone that Sara Hurwitz is a full member of our rabbinic staff, a rabbi with the additional quality of a distinct woman’s voice,” he said.
Hurwitz agreed. “Having it clear that I can be a rabbinic presence helps me fulfill my role — I could be more present for people if my title was more rabbinic-sounding,” she says. “That’s when the controversy really arose.”
Perhaps not surprising, it didn’t take long for critics to decry Weiss’ conferral of “rabba” on Hurwitz. First to step forward was the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, part of the Agudath Israel of America, both of which are rabbinic policy-making councils associated with the country’s premier religious institutes of higher learning, or yeshivahs, as well as related haredi (ultra-Orthodox) organizations.
The council issued a statement that read, in part: “These developments represent a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition,” and “Any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox.”
The (Orthodox) Rabbinical Council of America’s (RCA) response also could be summed up in two words: absolutely not.
It was all about that title: rabba. The experience, Hurwitz says, taught her a great deal about the power of language, observing that the Orthodox community had a strong and negative reaction to any “‘R-B-sounding’ title.”
According to Rabbi Alon Tolwin, director of Aish Detroit, an outreach organization that brings religion to Judaism’s more secular corners, the concept of a female Orthodox rabbi does not exist.
“Simply put, as there cannot be a kosher clam, there cannot be a female rabbi. This is not because there is anything wrong or lacking in womanhood or rabbi-hood. The two are simply not compatible,” he stated in an email.
“That said, in addressing someone who claims to be an adherent of Halachah, and yet calls herself a rabbi, I would ask her how she can feel comfortable doing something which upsets a tradition which is thousands of years old, is contrary to all halachic principle and something we clearly don’t want to set as a standard goal for our daughters.”
Of course, not all Orthodox rabbis agree with such a black and white position.
“Rabbi means teacher,” says Rabbi Eliezer Cohen, spiritual leader of congregation Or Chadash of Oak Park/Huntington Woods and an instructor at Akiva Hebrew Day School in Southfield; Akiva is Detroit’s only Modern Orthodox day school.
“There is no reason I see that a female can’t teach, and as far as leading a congregation, there is nothing I can see halachically precluding a woman from leading a congregation. I think the controversy over the linguistics of it is rather silly.
“Whatever her function is — it shouldn’t make any difference what she is called — there are plenty of people who are not qualified out there who are called rabbis,” Cohen says. “Semichah nowadays is nothing more than an acknowledgement that someone is qualified, in terms of knowledge, ability and loyalty to Jewish tradition.”
The rabba is not immune to the criticism; nor does she look upon herself as a pioneer. Rather, she believes in the rightness of her clerical membership within the parameters that are set forth according to Torah law. “Which means there are three things a woman cannot do,” she acknowledged.
According to Orthodox Jewish law, a woman (ergo, Hurwitz) may not count in a minyan (quorum of 10 men required for prayer), serve as a witness/be part of a Jewish court of law or lead certain parts of religious services.
Not only is Hurwitz not challenging any of these regulations, she says she readily accepts them, with the caveat that “those things do not prevent me from functioning like a rabbi.”
To that end, the rabba serves as a full member of the clergy at HIR, including teaching and speaking from the pulpit (HIR has what, Hurwitz describes, an “advanced architecture,” with a raised bimah in the center of the room, and, therefore, separated from both the women’s and the men’s sections.)
But it’s the chance to participate in lifecycle events that means the most to her.
Hurwitz, who is married and the mother of three boys, says it’s “a real honor to be allowed into people’s lives, to know that they invest their trust with me and allow me to help them.”
She was initially concerned that even those who identified as Modern Orthodox might be a bit wary of having a woman serve as rabbi when they are most in pain, or afraid or even breathlessly happy.
She was wrong.
“The more I go out into the communities, the less threatening they realize I am,” Hurwitz says.
In the summer of 2009, Weiss and Hurwitz took strides to make certain that the path toward Orthodox women’s spiritual leadership could truly have, as Hurwitz is fond of saying, “a space and a place.”
A full-page ad in New York’s Jewish Week newspaper heralded the opening of Yeshivat Maharat, an institution of Jewish learning for women who self-identify as Orthodox and wish to serve in positions of spiritual leadership. Almost immediately, they received 35 applications.
“We realized that there were women who were thirsting for serious learning,” Hurwitz says, “but they didn’t want to only learn, they wanted to serve in the community.”
Hurwitz is quick to point out that there already exist several Orthodox women who already serve as spiritual leaders, albeit with different titles — and at least two of whom have a Detroit connection. Dina Najman, who grew up in Southfield, has served as rosh kehilah (head of congregation) for Kehilat Orach Eliezer — located on New York’s Upper West Side — since 2006.
Rachel Kohl Finegold, education and ritual director at Chicago’s Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation, as well as being a student at Yeshivat Maharat, is the daughter of Chaye Kohl, education director of Akiva Hebrew Day School in Southfield.
Kohl, who attended Hurwitz’s April lecture, offered her opinion on the idea of Orthodox women — like her daughter — taking on spiritual leadership positions: “When women study Halachah with as much depth and devotion as some are doing today,” Kohl notes, “then they are taking the next logical step — it is that they be consulted, first by their peers, and then by the larger community, for halachic decisions.”
With four students currently enrolled in their second year at Yeshivat Maharat (located at HIR), Hurwitz is actively visiting communities around North America, testing the waters to see what positions might be available for her students once they graduate.
It bears mentioning that, as part of an agreement reached with the RCA, it was determined that Yeshivat Maharat graduates will be given the title maharat, and not rabba. Hurwitz, however, will retain her title, and notes that while her yeshivah will not confer the title rabba, “that doesn’t discount the idea that hiring institutions will call our graduates rabba. I hope that “rabba” will catch on,” she added.
But will it catch on in Detroit? That remains to be seen. Chaye Kohl believes that “the organized Detroit Modern Orthodox community is more traditional/conservative in outlook than Modern Orthodox communities in other parts of the country. It will take some time for Detroit to feel comfortable with a woman as rosh kehilah.”
The reluctance of several local Orthodox rabbis and laypeople to comment for this article certainly supports this argument.
Perhaps the diverse crowd of 130 women and men, who gathered on a rainy spring night to hear Rabba Hurwitz speak (young and old, from all denominations) indicates another direction.