SPECIAL REPORT: Women in Orthodox Judaism – From seminary to smicha

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SPECIAL REPORT: Women in Orthodox Judaism – From seminary to smicha

Like-minded leaders: Leah Sarna
Like-minded leaders: Leah Sarna

Caron Kemp speaks to two female trailblazers who are redefining what it means to be a modern Orthodox woman

Like-minded leaders: Leah Sarna
Like-minded leaders: Leah Sarna studies with Dinah Brawer

Since the beginning of time, an Orthodox Jewish woman’s place has been firmly in the kitchen. Charged with feeding her families’ appetites with traditional food and their hearts and souls with love and warmth, the parameters of her role have been set by an age-old proposition that the woman is the homemaker while the man is the breadwinner.

Orthodoxy has never tried to pretend otherwise, but rather has celebrated this supposition. Women are the backbone of the family; dutiful mothers, doting wives and the embodiment of domestic values. Within them lies the continuation of our faith and from them the sparks of love for it grow.

So, in discovering the existence of a programme training Orthodox Jewish women for rabbinic ordination or smicha, there was undoubtedly some surprise. That there are women from across the globe signed up to the four-year course at Yeshivat Maharat in New York, its value and demand is nevertheless obvious.

Dina Brawer was born and raised in a Lubavitch family in Milan. The wife of a rabbi, she revelled in the communal work but always shied away from the title of rebbetzen, finally finding her passion at a Jewish feminism conference in 2003.

In the years that followed, she has served as the UK ambassador for the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) and, two years ago, enrolled as a remote student in the Yeshivat Maharat course – the first Orthodox Yeshiva to offer women smicha – to become a rabbi herself.

Leah Sarna
Leah Sarna

“As a child I was very heavily influenced by the outreach movement, where I was taught that we have a responsibility to repair the world around us and also to share our Judaism with other Jews who may not have the same access to it,” she explains.

“I always knew that I wanted to serve a community and marrying a rabbi meant I found a partner who shared the same values.”

While each afternoon, Brawer logs on to her computer to join the 22 like-minded women similarly aspiring to smicha, the 44-year-old mother of four spends her mornings juggling her responsibilities as a homemaker with her work with JOFA UK, which has some 3,000 followers.

“Jewish feminists aren’t choosing between the kitchen and the synagogue,” she clarifies.

“We feel we can amalgamate both into our lives. For some people, raising a family is an intensely spiritual experience and it’s fulfilling, and for others it’s not enough and they’re looking for more.

“Contrary to what people may believe, nothing in Jewish law prohibits a woman from becoming a Halachic adviser.

“When women are training to be rabbis, they’re training to teach, to impart Jewish law, to inspire and to counsel. They’re religious spiritual leaders, but they’re not prayer leaders.” Opened five years ago, Yeshivat Maharat offers women who graduate from the course the authority to make Halachic decisions for their congregation.

Whether she decides to be known as a rabbi or a maharat – which stands for Manhigah Hilchatit Ruchanit Toranit, a leader in Halachic, spiritual and Torah matters, Brawer is set to make Jewish history here in the UK; treading a path previously untouched.

And passionate about sharing this vision, Brawer is looking forward to hosting JOFA’s second annual Be’er Miriam Women’s Leadership Programme in schools and at university JSocs around London next week.

Scheduled to coincide with International Women’s Day, the workshops, which will be led by Brawer’s study partner Leah Sarna, aim to inspire young people by introducing them to dynamic Jewish female leaders and role models.

“There are many women for whom the more traditional role still works and it still keeps them connected to religious Judaism in a deep way,” says Sarna, who enrolled in the smicha programme immediately after graduating from Yale University with a BA in philosophy and psychology.

“There are many others for whom what we have is not working. There are many women who feel deeply respected in their work environments and deeply disrespected in their synagogues. They can study at the top universities, but the top levels of Torah study are not available to them. Many of those women leave. I want those women to stay.”

The 24-year-old from Manhattan, who has lectured on Jewish feminism across America and currently serves as clergy intern for Harvard Hillel, values highly the opportunity to work with Jewish women of today.

“The Orthodox feminist movement is a movement towards more Torah and more mitzvot for more people,” she explains.

“It’s motivated by a sense that traditional Judaism has so much to offer everyone, if only they have access to it.”

So what has the reaction been like towards Brawer, Sarna and their contemporaries from the Orthodox community?

“People find it hard to be upset when I show them that I like Torah and mitzvot a lot,” Sarna concludes.

“I think in theory many people find the idea of female clergy threatening, especially because Orthodox people like old things and in some ways this is a new thing.

“But I’m in it because I like old things too, and the more I can remind people of that, the easier it gets.”

• For more information visit www.jofa.org/uk

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