Published on August 8th, 2018 | by LedgerOnline0
LEADING THE WAY
Beth David becomes CT’s first synagogue to welcome Orthodox scholar from controversial women’s yeshiva
By Stacey Dresner
WEST HARTFORD – Jenna Englender is a Jewish scholar.
Currently enrolled in an in-depth course of study that includes Jewish law, Talmud, Torah, Jewish thought, leadership training, and pastoral counseling, Englender will use all that she is learning as the new director of outreach at Beth David Synagogue, a Modern Orthodox congregation in West Hartford. Englender took up her new post on August 1.
Next year, when she graduates, she has a choice of using the title of either “Maharat” or “Rabba.” Maharat is an acronym for “Torah, spiritual and halachic leader;” Rabba is the feminine for “Rabbi.”
Beth David’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Yitzchock Adler, says the title is really up to Englender, who this fall will begin her fourth and last year of study at Yeshivat Maharat, the Orthodox women’s yeshiva founded in 2009 by Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabba Sara Hurwitz.
Englender, 28, is one of 31 women currently enrolled in the controversial yeshiva which, according to the school’s website, is designed to “provide a path for women to achieve positions of spiritual leadership within the Orthodox community on par with other rabbinic leaders.”
“A ‘maharat’ is an Orthodox spiritual leader who has been conferred the degree of smicha – rabbinic ordination – and is a graduate of Yeshivat Marahat,” Englender explained to the Ledger. “There are other women in the Jewish community that have graduated from other institutions, mostly in Israel, who also have a similar role in their communities.”
“Jenna is extraordinarily committed to Jewish life and learning,” said Maharat’s Hurwitz. “She is a fast and eager learner who consistently goes above and beyond in her dedication to learning more, growing more, and being present. Jenna brings a warmth and humility to each interaction, while at the same time conveying a direct and honest opinion. She is a strong public speaker with interesting and well-researched ideas to share. The Jewish community will be so fortunate to have her as a leader.”
Englender says she is not that concerned about what she will be called once she is ordained and will make that decision when she graduates next spring.
“For me it hasn’t really been about the title. It is more about the skills,” she explains. “I think it is important to have had someone say, ‘You have been taught, you have knowledge, you are capable of teaching the community in a serious way.’ But I think the conferral of a degree is very important in that way. It gives a sense of authority to what you are doing that I think is very important.”
As for an “actual title for me, I am a little more flexible,” Englender added. “I think some people who are in our program have been waiting for this their whole life. They are going to get the same degree as the men and so they want to be called what the men are called. And I fully understand that. For me that’s not as important.”
Englender has a huge fan in Rabbi Adler, who is well known for his ardent outreach to other Jewish denominations as well as to local non-Jewish congregations, like Saint Thomas Church next door. It is not surprising that he would be the first Orthodox rabbi in Connecticut to welcome a Maharat scholar to his shul with open arms.
“We are blessed, so blessed, to have Jenna here because Jenna’s goal is to make a difference in the Jewish community,” Adler told the Ledger. “It’s not about making a statement, it is about making a difference.”
West Hartford philanthropists Ann and Jeremy Pava, members of both Young Israel of West Hartford, where they regularly attend services, and Beth David, also hope to make a difference – and strengthen the Orthodox community – as financial donors to both Yeshivat Maharat and the maharat position at Beth David.
“We support [Yeshivat] Maharat because it is an excellent institution with outstanding leadership. It is the pioneering institution in North America training Orthodox female religious leaders,” Ann Pava says. “In an era of declining religious commitment, tapping the potential of 50 percent of our community for religious leadership will be transformative for the Orthodox community and the Jewish community at large.”
Finding her spiritual way
Originally from California’s Bay Area, Englender says she grew up “not affiliated.”
“There are a lot of Jews in the Bay Area but not a lot of observant Jews. I actually grew up within walking distance of the only Orthodox synagogue in Oakland. But I didn’t really know about it.”
Still, she says she felt a strong pull internally.
“Every once in a while I would go to a Friday night service, or I would go to a friend’s bar mitzvah and I would say, ‘I really want a bat mitzvah,’ and maybe I would take a couple of classes, but it never worked into the family calendar very much.”
But her interest in Judaism really was sparked during her junior year at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study when she wandered into Hillel one day.
“I don’t think I even knew what Hillel was, but a friend invited me to a dinner. They happened to be announcing a bar and bat mitzvah class for people who had never had one and I thought: ‘That’s me, I want one.’”
She became active at NYU’s Hillel, learned to read Hebrew and began taking some Judaism classes on the side. She slowly moved towards becoming more observant.
“NYU has a very strong Orthodox community as does its Hillel as well. Also, the style of observance called to me. I have always been a fan of a feeling of strong tradition and also of structure, and Orthodoxy provides a lot of really good structure in your life. It felt very natural to me. But it took a few years to get to a point of being traditionally observant.”
After graduating from NYU cum laude, Englender served for a year as a communications fellow for the Samuel Bronfman Foundation before deciding to head to Jerusalem, where she spent a year at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.
“I didn’t grow up with a very strong Jewish education, so I started seriously learning after college,” she says. “I learned a little bit here and there at the Hillel in college but in terms of actually engaging with the text and a more traditional kind of learning, that was after college. I started that at Pardes.
“My thought was that everybody else got to go to Israel for a year; I never got to do that. I was there for maybe a week and a half before I realized that a year was not nearly enough. It is kind of an eternal process of learning, but I knew that a year was not going to be enough for what I wanted.”
When she came back to New York, she worked for Pardes for two years while trying to figure out her next move.
“As I was working there, I think in the back of my mind there was always this question of how can I find a place to learn more – and learn more in a serious way,” she says. “I was also looking for a career path and I had fallen in love with the way that I had been taught at Pardes – I love the kind of world that a teacher can create when they hand you a text in a way that is both empowering and illuminating. I had in my head the idea that maybe I would be able to find a way to do that for other people.”
She found what she was looking for at Yeshivat Maharat.
“It’s a place that offers serious Jewish education for an extended period of time,” she explains. “I also love halacha, and we learn halacha in a very methodical way. I think what really capped it off for me was the additional classes around the halachic curriculum, which are pastoral care – a really strong pastoral program–and Modern Orthodoxy classes – a lot of other important classes that are really shaping people to be well-rounded leaders.”
And she is shaping up to be a leader. In addition to her studies at Maharat, Englender has facilitated community conversations around conversion and mikveh through her role as co-founder of the Orthodox Converts Network and is a trained mikveh salon facilitator with ImmerseNYC.
In 2017, she built the Jewish Learning Fellowship in Westchester as a member of the Hillel Rabbinic Entrepreneurs Fellowship. She is also a graduate of the Kevah Teaching Fellowship, which trains educators to “teach the Torah [they’ve] learned.
“When you are a good teacher you are not just teaching you are guiding,” Englender says.
Yeshivat Maharat and its women’s rabbinic ordination program has been a source of controversy since the school was founded in 2008. Since then 26 women have graduated from Maharat.
“Our graduates are all currently employed and are serving in positions in synagogues, schools, Hillels, hospitals, and communal organizations,” says Jen Vegh, director of Community Engagement at Yeshivat Maharat. “Ten are working in fulltime synagogue positions and many of the others, who are in schools, hospitals, etc., have part-time work in synagogues or regularly serve as scholars in residence.”
While Beth David’s Rabbi Adler is supportive of women like Jenna Englender and their quest for leadership roles in the Orthodox community, he says that this kind of change must sometimes be gradual.
“Yes, there are women serving in professional rabbinic capacities in the United States and in Israel and perhaps in other places as well,” notes Adler. “It is slowly taking root… Sociological change occurs slowly. There has never been a prohibition, nor can anyone find in authoritative text a prohibition to women being leaders in Jewish communities. In fact, biblically, it is evidenced that they were.
“However, since we are emerging from an era of several centuries where it was just not expected, the transition this provides us with is exciting because of the pool of leaders that can come from the female population. But it also must be approached with sensitivity for those to whom semantics are important,” he says, referring to the use of such titles as “Rabbi” by Orthodox female leaders.
Last year, in response to the growing number of Maharat graduates bursting onto the modern Orthodox scene, the Orthodox Union (of which Beth David is a member) made a ruling that women could not serve as clergy in its congregations either in title or in deed.
According to the ruling, women are not allowed to perform any of the functions of a clergy member, including ruling on a full-range of halakhic matters, officiating at religiously significant life-cycle events, like brit milah, baby naming, weddings and funerals or leading services.
This past February, the OU put out a statement qualifying that ruling saying that synagogues with female clergy already on staff would not be expelled from the organization but would be “grandfathered in.” OU maintained that its policy would still be to prohibit other synagogues from hiring women in rabbinic positions.
Englender says she is mindful of the fact that change takes time.
“Something like this, which is up-ending a lot of what people are used to seeing in their synagogue has to happen slowly and I think everyone who is involved knows that and respects that. So, even in the time that I’ve been at Maharat, it changes, it progresses, and I think you’re are much more likely to hear terms like ‘rabba’ and ‘rabbi’ now than we were three or four years ago as the community becomes more comfortable with it.”
But some Maharat grads are pushing forward a bit faster.
It was reported late last month that Rabbanit Hadas Fruchter, ordained at Maharat in 2016, plans to open her own Modern Orthodox shul in Philadelphia next year. She has explained that the shul will be traditional and halachic.
“One thing that is important to understand about the Orthodox community is that there is always a push and pull of where our modern world is taking us that we find to be important and informative…And that’s a balance I actually love. It leads to a lot of really well thought out and methodical decisions that the community makes,” Englender says.
One decision the OU made in keeping with the growing need for female leaders in the Orthodox community was to start The Women’s Initiative, developed with an eye toward “creating and promoting women’s programming that educates and inspires within the halachic parameters of Orthodox Judaism.”
Since arriving in West Hartford in late June with her husband Sam Englender, who serves as the new rabbi at Hebrew Center for Health (formerly The Hebrew Home), and their nine-month-old daughter, Maya, Englender has been working to get to know the Greater Hartford Jewish community.
In July, she began meeting with communal leaders to both learn about the local Jewish institutions and to help identify the kinds of Jewish programming and classes she can offer.
She accompanied Rabbi Adler to the hospital on pastoral visits, an area she also hopes to concentrate on at Beth David. During her first week as director of outreach, she continued to get to know the community, making phone calls and devising pre-holiday classes. She plans to give a sermon to the entire Beth David congregation later in the month of August, but says she is not sure if that is something she will do on a regular basis.
Englender’s position – which is newly formed – is being funded by grants from Yeshiva Maharat and by several other members of the Jewish community in addition to the Pavas.
“Jeremy and I believe that in order for the Orthodox community to stay strong and vibrant we must have women in leadership positions in Orthodox synagogues,” says Ann Pava. “We believe it’s especially important for girls and young women to have role models who inspire them to grow and flourish as Orthodox Jews.