From the Foundation Team

Investing in Equity for Orthodox Female Leaders

– by Steven Green

January 29th, 2019

Equity and pay disparity are common and important themes in today’s public discourse, but their problematic presence in society is not new.  These gaps exist and have historically existed along the spectrum of diversity including, but not limited to, ability/disability, gender, geography, race, religion, and sexual orientation.

While each of these verticals is critical to explore on its own, there is a common theme among them: Equity is categorically tied to opportunity.  While the Equal Pay Act of 1963 coupled with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination based on most of these categories, there still remained a lack of opportunity for individuals to reach the pinnacles of their chosen field.  Educational opportunities in fields as different as business and medicine, and ranging from bachelor’s degrees to PhDs, continued to be exclusionary to the ultimate suppression of the minority.

The training and hiring of clergy—the spiritual leaders empowered to teach children, to comfort those in need, and to lead communities—was no exception to gross “opportunity disparities.”  In the Jewish world, rabbis have been the empowered leaders for more than 2,000 years, beginning with the codification of the Jewish law under Rabban Gamliel and Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai, among others.  Other than one noted example in the 17th century, the first ordained female rabbi was Regina Jonas in Berlin in 1935. Only in 1972 was the first American, Sally Preisand, ordained publicly through Hebrew Union College. 37 years after that, Rabba Sara Hurwitz was ordained as the first Orthodox female rabbi. Clearly, within these 2,000 years, women were not able to achieve the level of responsibility, respect, or remuneration of male rabbis because they were simply never given the opportunity to become their counterparts.

However, today, Yeshivat Maharat is the first and only Orthodox seminary in North America to ordain women as clergy. Maharat, an acronym meaning Morah Hilchatit Ruchanut Toranit, is literally translated as “Torah-based, spiritual teacher according to Jewish law.”  Since 2009, Maharat has ordained 26 women. In addition, 31 women currently are enrolled at the institution. While this is small relative to the approximately 1,000 male rabbis affiliated with the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest network of mainstream orthodoxy, Maharat has flourished since its nascent beginnings of three graduates in its inaugural class.

The demand for an institution like this existed for years. Many women were forced to seek educational advancement through other avenues such as the Drisha Institute, seminary learning, and learning within respective home communities.  None of these options, however, delivered that crucial product to those women: a degree that sufficiently elevates their position and stature and provides them with credentials that match their education and experience.

Because of the past dearth of opportunity for advancement for many talented women, Maharat created an accelerated track to provide credentials and ordination to those who already underwent significant training. This program, The Advanced Kollel: Executive Ordination Track of Yeshivat Maharat, is clear in its goal to provide in-service rabbinic ordination to highly talented educators who have already proven themselves in the field of Jewish education, but for societal reasons have not had the ability to advance and achieve full equity with their male colleagues.

The Jim Joseph Foundation recently awarded a grant of $1.1 million over five and a half years to support this program, which has three distinct but related goals for graduates:

  • To garner the respect and authority that rabbinic ordination and title conveys.

  • To increase earnings so that they are on par with that of their male counterparts.

  • To elevate women into top leadership positions.

In certain cases, such as in synagogues, parochial schools, and college campuses, positions were specifically reserved for those with rabbinic ordination. Individuals lacking that specific credential were restricted from meaningful advancement. In cases where institutions created space room for Orthodox women, they had to make specific exceptions, such as inclusion in an all-clergy interfaith council on a college campus or a rabbinic educators program at national organizations. Now, women who find Maharat to be an ideological and cultural fit have a new opportunity to pursue, with a career pathway and no ceiling.

While undoubtedly the advances still needed to achieve equity in this area are too numerous to discuss here, Maharat is a critical start. From the women in its programs, to the institutions in which they will work, to the communities they will lead, and to the young people they will help to engage and educate—our entire community stands to benefit from this welcomed development.

Steven Green is Senior Director, Grants Management and Compliance at the Jim Joseph Foundation