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Facing OU ban, Orthodox women clergy keep working

By Ben Sales/(JTA) – On Thursday, Feb. 2, by the Orthodox Union (OU), an umbrella Orthodox Jewish group, issued a decision banning its member synagogue from hiring women clergy. Yeshivat Maharat, a New York school which trains and ordains Orthodox women clergy, was one of the main targets of the ruling. The decision follows a 2015 decision by the Rabbinical Council of America – an umbrella group of Orthodox rabbis – that also barred women clergy. The OU decision says that while there is a place for women at synagogues to teach Torah, hold professional leadership positions and advise on certain Jewish legal matters, Jewish law prohibits women from filling a role akin to a pulpit rabbi. Five O.U. synagogues currently employ Yeshivat Maharat graduates – they all hold the title of “rabba” or “maharat.”

Yeshivat Maharat was founded in 2009 by Rabbi Avi Weiss, shortly after the liberal spiritual leader gave ordination to Sara Hurwitz, the first rabba. Hurwitz now serves as dean of the school, which has 28 students in addition to the 14 graduates, nine of whom are employed as clergy in synagogues. Hurwitz says the O.U. decision hasn’t led her to question her commitment to Orthodoxy. “I think that what we’re seeing is that Orthodox Judaism is a big tent,” she said. “I feel very strong and committed in my Orthodox practice, and so do my students, and they particularly want to serve in Orthodox communities and be part of Orthodox communities.”

Rabbi Marc Dratch, executive vice president of the RCA, who supports the decision, said it shows the OU recognizes that women need to have a role in the synagogue.

“I think it was an important step for the O.U. in setting standards for congregations that are part of the umbrella,” he said. “What you have here is a nuanced statement that sets certain limits but encourages advancement in other areas.”

Leah Sarna, who is due to graduate from Yeshivat Maharat next year, said that while she disagrees with the decision, she understands the wariness that some Orthodox Jews have toward ordaining women as rabbis after thousands of years of a male-only rabbinate. Like them, she says, she appreciates the weight of tradition. “Figuring out what Hashem wants from us is heavy and difficult work,” she said. “In our generation, this is our question, and this is what we’re trying to figure out. On one hand, it hurts. On the other hand, I’m not sure I would want it to be any other way.”

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