By Cindy Mindell –
This year, Beit Chaverim Synagogue of Westport/Norwalk is hosting one of only two congregational interns who are students at the new Yeshivat Maharat in Riverdale, N.Y.
Rori Picker Neiss is a second-year student at the school, founded in 2009 by Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabba Sara Hurwitz to be the first-ever institution to train women to be fully integrated into the Orthodox community as spiritual leaders and halachic authorities.
“Maharat” is a Hebrew acronym for “manhiga hilchahtit ruchanit Toranit,” or a woman who is a teacher of Jewish law and spirituality. Through a formal four-year curriculum and training program, the yeshiva creates “poskot,” or legal arbiters for individuals and the community. The curriculum is partially modeled on Orthodox ordination programs, and includes courses on Jewish law, Talmud, Bible, and Jewish thought, as well as training in rhetorical facility and counseling proficiency. Students also take courses in pastoral education, practical rabbinics, and professional development, and take part in special programs addressing interdenominational and interfaith dialog and inclusiveness of marginalized groups within the Orthodox community.
In addition to full-time study, students are placed as visiting scholars and interns in synagogues, schools, or communal organizations. Neiss spends one Shabbat a month with Beit Chaverim, shadowing and assisting Rabbi Yossi Pollak, and giving sermons. She also teaches a class on the minor characters in Talmud, using them as a lens to explore the rabbis’ views on heresy, gender dynamics, polemics, and other issues.
Neiss, 26, grew up in an Orthodox home in Brooklyn and attended yeshiva through high school. She attended Macauley Honors College at Hunter College in New York.
“It is an incredibly diverse campus and my parents were always very open about other people and ideas, but I still never quite realized how much I had not experienced,” Heiss says. “I was bowled over by all the people I was meeting and the new friends I was making, from all different cultures. I started questioning all the things I had thought about other people.”
As an incoming freshman, Neiss brought with her a wide interest in politics, American history, and political science, but her worldview changed in a graduate-level class on the Middle East.
“I heard another student say, ‘Why don’t we just divide Jerusalem in half?’” she recalls. “I thought, ‘The people living there would never do that. You have no idea what you’re talking about. Obviously, you’ve never met a single person who actually lives in Jerusalem and has to deal with what’s really going on there.’ I realized that, instead of politics, we should be talking about religion and what’s really motivating people. I declared a double major in religion and politics.”
While in school and after graduating, Neiss worked with interfaith organizations.
“I wanted to solve all the world’s problems and thought that could happen by getting people to talk with each other,” she says.
While employed at Religions for Peace in New York, she became aware that many co-workers were representing their respective faith communities. All the board members were clergy from various religions.
“People were pushing me about going back to school to learn more about my own religion and beliefs, and I started thinking about what it would mean to get more education in Orthodox Judaism,” Neiss says. “Knowing that I wanted to work at least in part with the Orthodox community, and knowing that I couldn’t go to rabbinical school, I didn’t know if I wanted to do a PhD, so I didn’t go back to school.”
Neiss worked at the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) and with the American Jewish Committee Interreligious Affairs. While at JOFA, she learned about the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education.
“Drisha offers intense Jewish education for women,” she says. “I wanted to learn, just for myself and not with any long-term goals at the time.”
In 2009, just before Neiss entered Drisha, she found out that Yeshivat Maharat was opening in the same facility, and was accepted in the inaugural class, provided that she first complete a year at Drisha. She transferred to the yeshiva in 2010. She is one of nine students; five of whom live in New York, one who participated online, and another who participates half the time in person and half online, from Poland.
“For many of us, the yeshiva program offers a new program and new ideas of how Orthodox women can contribute to the community,” she says. “I’m still learning what I’m good at and what I’m interested in. I grew up in a world where women were very educated and functioned in leadership positions, where they were Torah and Talmud scholars, teachers and motivational speakers. But more often than not, they were married to and partners with equally impressive and educated rabbis.”
Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, head of the yeshiva, was a fellow student of Rabbi Yossi Pollak when the two were at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. When Neiss was looking for an internship, Fox put out a call to colleagues in the Tri State area and Pollak responded.
“The reason I said ‘Sure’ without thinking twice is because our congregation and the Westport community in general can always benefit from another person coming in to teach,” Pollak says. “As with a ‘Taste of Torah’ program, it’s good to give the community a chance to learn from a range of scholars. It brings another perspective, another voice to the table.”
So far, Neiss has spent one Shabbat and Yom Kippur at Beit Chaverim. as intern for one Shabbat.
“I’ve been getting some positive reactions from people;” she says. “I bring a different perspective from Rabbi Pollak’s. Some people are interested in talking with me because I’m a woman; others want to learn Torah and Judaism together, not because I’m a woman, but because they want to discuss different perspectives. I love the fact that I’m not just viewed as a female presence, but as a member of the team.”
In the Modern Orthodox world, it has become widely accepted for women to teach Torah to congregations, Pollak says. In addition to teaching at Beit Chaverim, Pollak hopes to give Neiss experience in counseling and involvement in the congregation’s lifecycle events.
Neiss says that she gets a lot of questions about and reactions to the yeshiva and how she hopes to use her training.
“There is the halacha on one side – what people are allowed to do, according to Jewish law – and the culture on the other side – what we will allow women to do,” she says. “Questions and reactions come to me from across the spectrum: there are some in the Orthodox community who aren’t comfortable with what I’m doing, and others who say I’m not doing enough. There’s no central body that dictates to all Orthodox; there are many bodies.”
After graduating, Neiss says that she wants to work with the community “in a broad sense,” perhaps on a college campus or as part of a synagogue.
“I have a lot of experience working with organizations and am sometimes removed from people,” she says. “But I find so much more fulfillment working directly and face-to-face. Wherever I end up, I will bring all my experiences with me, so whatever that means – an interfaith component, a feminist component – I’m really interested in becoming part of the community and pushing people to explore and learn and question things, and that comes in all different shapes and sizes and ways.”