Holding Tradition While Reflecting Modernity: A Recipe for Social Change

(l-r), Yeshivat Maharat ordination ceremony 2013: Rabba Sara Hurwitz (dean of Yeshivat Maharat), Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold, and Maharat Abby Brown Scheier. Photo by Maxine Dovere/JNS; eJP archives.

By Ariel Groveman Weiner

eJewishPhilanthropy ran an item yesterday highlighting the expanding roles for women in the Orthodox community related to a recent statement by the Orthodox Union. While the article intended to celebrate this as progress, it failed to address the misguided attempt by the Orthodox Union to impose a ceiling on the flourishing project to train and ordain Orthodox women as clergy. The Orthodox Union failed to account for the fact that more women are studying to become clergy than ever before, demand for women leaders is high, and we see the change and impact women clergy are already having in communities.

Ten years ago, it would have been hard to imagine Orthodox communities embracing female clergy. Due to the launch of Yeshivat Maharat over 30 communities in the United States have been impacted by its graduates and interns. Over 40 women are enrolled to be ordained or are already clergy working in the field, in synagogues, in Hillels, schools, and religious institutions. And Yeshivat Maharat is not alone. Other yeshivot and religious institutions in Israel are training female scholars to lead spiritual and educational institutions.

Some may be wondering in the broader community – how does Yeshivat Maharat think about making change in a community that seems determined to exclude half of its membership from taking on the highest leadership roles. There are many useful articles and ideas that have been shared about the Jewish legal legitimacy and sociological benefits to continue this march forward (for example, see in-depth analysis of the Jewish legal permissibility of Orthodox female clergy and the positive impact women have in communities here). We rely on tried and true social change theory, that may be applicable to others that are wrestling with these questions.

These are strategies we have and will continue to rely on as we make the needed change in our Jewish communities to fully include women:

1. Identify a clear change model and theory. At Yeshivat Maharat, the change we seek is to create a vibrant and compelling Modern Orthodoxy and broader Jewish world where men and women can work together to lead 21st century Jewish communities. The method we employ is to recruit, train, and place women in spiritual clergy positions in the Orthodox and broader Jewish community. We have seen that by placing trained scholars in leadership roles (putting facts on the ground), public opinion has changed and will continue to change, and the lived experience of community members will continue to evolve, fulfilling our long term vision.

2. Create a strong network of institutional and individual supporters. We have worked hard to establish strong alliances with like-minded initiatives to help realize our shared long term vision and clearly articulate how the various pieces of the ecosystem work together. Yeshivat Maharat works closely with advocacy organizations, other rabbinical schools, umbrella rabbinic groups, and yeshivot in the US and Israel. We spend time building individual relationships with rabbis across the Orthodox spectrum; and we walk synagogue lay leadership through the hiring process and provide resources and models to communities interested in potentially hiring a graduate.

3. Bolster financial support. Money makes the dream possible and provides the resources necessary to drive the change. Over the last eight years, we have grown Yeshivat Maharat’s budget from just $100,000 to almost $1.5 million with many communal foundations and individuals investing in our work. We have a high donor retention rate because our donors see the change that is happening, and each year we have successfully drawn more donors to the cause. We also partner with lay leaders and rabbis interested in opening up new positions to women clergy, by encouraging and spurring financial support in their communities.

4. Embrace diversity and opposition, while celebrating progress. We know there will be pushback and have adopted a steadfast commitment to respecting diversity of views while also not retreating in fear or over-reacting to possible setbacks. As the Orthodox and Jewish community is not monolithic on many issues, we recognize there will be a variety of ways female leadership will be actualized in individual communities. Yet, we foster a culture of tenacity, hard work, optimism, and hope amongst our various stakeholders, and take the time to celebrate the achievements of our students and graduates, and the fact that they ARE changing our community for the better and bringing the needed voice and perspective of women at the highest levels of leadership.

These tenets and principles keep us grounded and focused on our vision. They will continue to guide us as we make change in our community, and are available to all who share our path. We are confident in achieving the long term goal of affecting deep and lasting change because history and hearts are on our side.

Ariel Groveman Weiner is Chair of the Board of Yeshivat Maharat and serves on the boards of JOFA, the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at Penn and Penn Hillel. Ariel is an Advisory Board member of Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute for Halakhic Leadership at Midreshet Lindenbaum, serves on SAR Academy’s Board of Education and is currently participating in the Wexner Heritage Fellowship. For over a decade, Ariel served as the Associate Director of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation where she oversaw the foundation’s grant portfolio and worked closely with the various initiatives the foundation supports, specifically focusing on strategic and long term planning. She is a past Charter Trustee of the Ramaz School and received her BA and MA in Jewish history from the University of Pennsylvania.