In June the inaugural class of Yeshivat Maharat, the first institution to train Orthodox women as spiritual leaders and halakhic authorities, will graduate. The three graduates who have spent the past four years studying Jewish law and ritual as well as pastoral counseling and leadership training will earn the title Maharat (Manhiga Hilchatit Ruchanit Toranit) and become spiritual leaders for the Orthodox community.
I spoke with one of the soon-to-be Maharat, Ruth Balinsky Friedman, last week at the Drisha Institute for Jewish education in New York City. After graduation Friedman will join the staff of Congregation Ohev Sholom —The National Synagogue in Washington, DC.
Did you always see yourself in a pastoral role?
My father is a rabbi, so one of most obvious career paths was right in front of me but I just never thought of spiritual leadership as an option because I did not see Orthodox women serving in this capacity. In college I worked hard but wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I always said I wasn’t a career driven person. It turns out I am, but I just needed to find the right career.
How did you become involved in Yeshivat Maharat?
When I graduated Barnard in 2007 I still wasn’t sure what to do next. By then Yeshivat Chovevei Torah was meeting in the Columbia/Barnard Hillel and I was sensing a lot of change in Modern Orthodoxy. I decided to study at Drisha for the year and then stayed for another—this is actually my sixth year in the Drisha building (where Yeshivat Maharat meets). During that time, Rabbi Weiss and Rabba Hurwitz opened Yeshivat Maharat and I was participating in social justice and interfaith programming for rabbinical students, in addition to other leadership development. Here was a school that would train me in exactly what I wanted to do. It was clear this was the perfect path for me.
What was the reaction by friends and family when you said you were enrolling?
Thank God, I have been supported every step of the way. A couple of people were concerned about what it would do to my standing in the community, how it would affect my dating life, etc. I got a lot of “are you sure?” I have friends who I know don’t support Yeshivat Maharat but they still support me. People get excited when you are doing something that gets people excited about being Jewish.
Did it affect your dating life?
Initially I was a bit concerned about what my dating life might look like. But something [fellow classmate] Rachel Kohl Finegold something said to me toward the first year that stuck with me. She said, “You wouldn’t want to date someone who wouldn’t want to date a Maharat anyway.”
Have you been confronted by detractors?
Not really. It’s very easy to say mean things behind people’s backs or on the Internet but when you speak to them face to face it’s much harder. In a tight knit community where you see everyone on Shabbos you still see the person as a person—even if you disagree with them
Will you be going by the title Maharat?
Yes. Maharat is the title the school gives us, but they acknowledge that if there were a title more appropriate for a certain position—for example, chaplain in a hospital chaplaincy—the graduate could use that title or work with the community to find a title that is more appropriate.
Were you always planning on doing pulpit work?
Our Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Fox, likes to joke with me that when I started I said I definitely don’t want to work in a shul, and now that’s exactly what I’m doing. Through my internship at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, I’ve come to realize that synagogue work is really important, and speaks to my passion as spiritual leader. I love the opportunity to engage seniors and also families with little kids, and singles, and bring them together to find meaning in one space.
Do you identify with the Open Orthodoxy movement espoused by Rabbi Avi Weiss?
I consider myself to be part of both Modern Orthodoxy and Open Orthodoxy. I appreciate Open Orthodoxy and the willingness and the desire to go beyond one’s own Orthodox world. Having done interfaith work and pluralist work, I’ve seen how important it is to give a face to Orthodoxy in those contexts, and other Orthodox groups may not always feel comfortable engaging with folks on that broader spectrum. I do identify with the Modern Orthodox contingent as well, and I serve on the board of Mt Sinai Jewish Center of Washington Heights.
Do you think there will be this split in Orthodoxy that is often being predicted?
I think that predictions of a potential split are exaggerated. Five years ago, everyone predicted Maharats would not be able to secure jobs, and lo and behold we all are gainfully employed. It is hard to predict the future, but I think there is enough in common that I don’t see a reason for a split.
What are some of the big issues facing Orthodoxy today?
How to contend with homosexuality and women’s involvement are two main issues confronting Orthodoxy today. This is due to two reasons: because Orthodox Jews internal to the movement are committed to the halacha but also want to see greater inclusion when possible, and because the secular society has shifted dramatically as well. I don’t think Modern Orthodoxy is ignoring these issues; the community has done a lot to begin to think about how we want to approach them. The work is not yet finished, but we are not stagnant.
How does it feel when people call you a trailblazer?
Bittersweet, because I wish that there were many graduating classes before ours. So many women tell me, “Oh, I just wish Yeshivat Maharat had been around when I was your age.” It’s nice to hear the support, but also a little sad. There are a lot of women who would do it but at this point in their lives can’t take four years off to come study. I am doing what I love to do, and I am lucky that I was in the right point in my life when Yeshivat Maharat was created.
Being a rabbi, has your father given you any professional advice?
It’s been very helpful to have my dad as a resource. One of the most useful things he taught me was to always order the food from the kosher restaurant an hour before you need it.