Jenna Englender’s quest for Jewish learning led her to become a Modern Orthodox rabbanit bent on sharing her passion.
Featured photo courtesy of Shulamit
Female rabbis are nothing new in Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Judaism. Now Detroit has one of a few dozen ordained Orthodox women clergy. Just don’t call her a rabbi.
Rabbanit Jenna Englender graduated in June from the smicha (ordination) program of Yeshivat Maharat in Bronx, N.Y., founded in 2009 to educate, ordain and invest in passionate, committed Orthodox women who model a dynamic Judaism to inspire and support individuals and communities.
Thirty-four of its graduates are serving as clergy in schools, hospitals, communal organizations and congregations around the country, and another 30 are enrolled in the program.
There are six Maharat graduates going by the title Rabbi. Other titles used by graduates include Rabba, Rabbanit, Maharat and Darshanit.
Before starting Yeshivat Maharat, co-founder and president Sara Hurwitz was ordained as a “rabba” by Orthodox rabbis Avi Weiss and Daniel Sperber.
Englender, 30, has come a long way from her San Francisco-area youth, where she had a strong Jewish identity but no formal affiliations. Her family was not part of a congregation, and she did not have any religious education.
She says she discovered the joys of Judaism at New York University, where she studied Middle Eastern studies and international relations. “I didn’t even realize what Hillel was; I sort of stumbled across it. A friend invited me to a Shabbat dinner at Hillel and I went,” she said.
There she learned about a class in Jewish basics for students who had never had a bar or bat mitzvah. “So, I started learning and suddenly discovered the wealth of Jewish life,” she said. “I just started sucking it up!”
She began to observe more traditional Jewish practices, and by the time she graduated in 2009, she solidly identified as Modern Orthodox. But something was still missing.
“I felt comfortable with my Jewish lifestyle, but I didn’t feel ownership of it,” she said. “I had no foundation in textual education. I felt my practices were meaningful, but I wanted to know why they were meaningful.”
She had been to Israel for a summer to study Arabic at Hebrew University. A year after graduating from NYU she returned, enrolling at Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies for a year-long program of text study.
“After a week or two, I knew a year wasn’t going to cut it,” she said, and began to think about how she could continue to learn.
That year, she met her husband, Sam Englender. He had come to Israel intending to stay but missed his family in suburban Detroit. As newlyweds, the Englenders moved to New York, where Sam earned ordination at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a Modern Orthodox rabbinical school founded by Avi Weiss, and Jenna worked as a recruiter for the Pardes Institute.
THIRST FOR MORE
Englender knew she needed more time with Jewish texts. Her Pardes experience had enlightened her to what she felt Jewish education could and should be. She wanted to be able to impart that sense of excitement and energy to others. At Yeshivat Maharat, she could learn Torah intensively and prepare to lead and educate others.
She graduated in June with four classmates who completed the seminary’s four-year program and three who finished the shorter “executive track” for women who already had a high level of scholarship and leadership experience but lacked formal ordination.
It wasn’t easy for her. Most of Englender’s classmates had grown up in Orthodox families and attended Orthodox day schools. Even with her Pardes experience and a year of independent study, she said, “I felt I was jumping in the deep end.”
But the Maharat program was “amazing,” she said. Every morning, the women studied Halachah (Jewish law), focusing on life cycle events, death and mourning, conversion, Shabbat, kashrut and family purity. “We spent a whole year on the laws of family purity, probably a lot more than some male rabbinic students,” she said.
Afternoons were devoted to Gemarah (Talmudic commentary) and pastoral education, where the women learned how to provide support for people suffering from family problems, depression, alcoholism and other difficulties of modern life.
Last spring, Sam, who grew up in Southfield and Beverly Hills and graduated from Michigan State, accepted a position as community outreach manager for Detroit’s JCRC/AJC. In June, just before Jenna graduated, she and Sam and daughter Maya, 2, moved to Oak Park. The Englenders’ second daughter, Esther Meira, was born Nov. 13.
Jenna spent the summer getting acquainted with the Detroit Jewish community. This fall, she is teaching three Melton adult education. She’s also assisting Rabbi Asher Lopatin of Kehillat Etz Chayim in Oak Park as a resource person for congregants’ questions about taharat hamishpacha, family purity.
“Many Modern Orthodox communities have seen the need to have a woman as a resource for taharat hamishpacha question, along with the rabbi,” Lopatin said. “We are excited that now we have a woman who has been trained on these important halachic issues and is willing to answer questions and give advice.”
As comfortable as a woman may be with a male rabbi, it may be easier for her to discuss intimate questions with another woman, he said.
“Thank God, we are living in a time where there are women as knowledgeable as Rabbanit Jenna, to whom we can turn with full confidence that they will give an erudite, sensitive and authoritative halachic answer,” he said. “I believe she and I will learn from each other, and I hope other synagogues in Detroit will take advantage of her expertise and skills.”
Neither Yeshivat Maharat nor the idea of ordaining women — even if they’re not called “rabbi” — have been embraced by mainstream Orthodox Judaism.
When Lopatin, former head of the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, moved to Detroit, he was not embraced by segments of the local Orthodox community because of his liberal Modern Orthodox views. Recently, he was named to head the JCRC/AJC.
In 2015, the Rabbinical Council of America passed a resolution stating that its members with positions in Orthodox institutions “may not ordain women into the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title used; or hire or ratify the hiring of a woman into a rabbinic position at an Orthodox institution; or allow a title implying rabbinic ordination to be used by a teacher of Limudei Kodesh (religious study) in an Orthodox institution.”
Other organizations have gone even farther, declaring Yeshivat Maharat a dissident movement that has rejected the basic tenets of Judaism.
But Englender is unfazed.
“I feel very welcome here,” she said. “Everyone I’ve met has been welcoming and open. It’s an incredibly friendly culture.”