Sacred Need at a Sacred Time

Yeshivat Maharat awarding smicha to its graduates in June 2015; courtesy of Yeshivat Maharat.

By Debbie Cosgrove and Stephanie Blumenkranz

“God says to Moses, speak to the Children of Israel, that they take from Me an offering.” (Exodus 25:1.) This opening line from parshat terumah, calls on the people to begin building the Mishkan, God’s moveable dwelling place. And we know that the people poured in the gifts, of all kinds and of all values. So much so, that when it was time to allocate, there was enough to set aside, to keep for sacred moments of need. This terumah, the gift God asks of the people, is to fulfill a sacred need at a sacred time. At the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York (JWFNY), this was our time.

This past winter, the Orthodox Union (OU) announced a policy attempting to impose limitations upon women serving as clergy at OU synagogues. This directly goes against the principles of our grantee partner Yeshivat Maharat and contradicts JWFNY’s vision, “A world where we all have equal opportunity for economic, religious, social, and political achievement.”

We know our voices alone are not enough to take a stand against this policy – so we are adding our dollars. To continue advocating for Orthodox women as clergy, we are furthering our support of Yeshivat Maharat with a $40,000 general operating support grant.

The OU policy is only one of the many reasons we are continuing our support of Yeshivat Maharat. Since the award of our first grant to Yeshivat Maharat in 2012 in support of their pastoral Torah program, 14 women scholars have been ordained, becoming prominent leaders, both in the Orthodox and larger international Jewish community. Our 2014 grant supported their internship and leadership development programming. They successfully developed a curriculum focused on practical rabbinics, writing and public speaking and incorporated a vigorous internship program where 12 of their students were placed in communities around North America and the world, including synagogues, Hillels, and community organizations.

One student intern shared that a gentle pastoral presence can transform a life cycle event, helping those in need find meaning and comfort. Another didn’t shy away from difficult topics when giving sermons. One week she spoke about depression and the challenges those with depression face in being accepted in the Jewish community. She remembers being “inundated” with congregants thanking her for her bravery in speaking about such a painful, but important topic in an accessible and pastoral manner. One young person wrote to her simply, “bless you and thank you.” This rabbinic leader in training impacted hundreds of congregants each time she spoke in the main service that year.

Orthodox women clergy have become a vital part of our community’s fabric. We have entered an era where it is no longer acceptable to have panels of women clergy without having representation from the Orthodox community. For a vibrant and diverse Jewish community to flourish, we must have women leaders at the helm of all denominations.

We cannot let the OU ruling have an impact on the strong progress that organizations like Yeshivat Maharat have made. We have come too far and have already seen the unmistakable benefit of having Orthodox women leaders as clergy. Yeshivat Maharat has cracked this glass ceiling. It is too late to recreate the ceiling, and it would contradict the world we are building – a world where women and girls have equal opportunities for achievement.

Debbie Cosgrove is the Grants Chair and Stephanie Blumenkranz is the Assistant Director of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York. JWFNY utilizes innovative social change grantmaking, advocacy and education campaigns to advance the status and wellbeing of women and girls in the United States, Israel and around the world. Founded in 1995, JWFNY has awarded over $4.5 million to 185 projects. For more information, please visit