Times of Israel Blog, 5.3.2017 By Ruthie Braffman Shulman
Shortly before the Orthodox Union released their rabbinic teshuva and statement regarding women’s leadership in the Orthodox community, I had a conversation with a young woman who, as a college senior, was contemplating her next stage of life. She is passionate about Torah and wants to give back to the Jewish community, but does not see herself fitting into the Modern Orthodox day school system. She reached out to me because, unlike many of my peers who contribute their incredible talents and passion to day schools, I have had the opportunity of being a woman in positions of educational Torah Leadership in the Modern Orthodox community with the support of Yeshiva University and the OU.
“Listen,” I said to this young woman after 20 minutes of excited chatter about Torah, the Jewish community’s strengths and needs, and GPATS (Yeshiva University’s post-college beit medrash MA program for woman), “you have to be really open-eyed about the prospects. There are not many educational positions out there for women outside of schools, and the job opportunities that exist are generally not full time.”
While acknowledging how blessed I have been to work in Torah Leadership as a congregational intern at Hebrew Institute of White Plains, a Torah educator for OU-JLIC on campus (as a sole educator, rather than in the standard OU-JLIC model as part of a rabbinic couple), and in my current role as Director of Education at Manhattan Jewish Experience (MJE) serving young Jewish professionals, I also explained that these positions did not necessarily exist before, and it was only the herculean effort of visionary leaders at OU-JLIC and MJE that made my positions a reality.
I am incredibly grateful for my professional opportunities and experiences. In addition to working with talented and idealistic mentors, I have had chances to learn and teach Torah, confront the personal and spiritual struggles of community members, and develop deep and meaningful relationships with individuals in different stages and walks of life. I just wish my experience were more common. I wish I did not need to tell an idealistic young woman who is passionate about Torah and Jewish leadership that this is not a simple career path. I wish Erica Brown, an inspirational figure in the world of women’s Torah Leadership, did not discourage women from following her career path because of the incredible challenges involved. (her article triggered a great deal of anguish and soul searching amongst me and my peers.)
The OU’s statement has given me reason to be more optimistic about this young woman’s career prospects. While I feel uncomfortable with some of the teshuva’s language and tone, I want to shout from the rooftops: As a Modern Orthodox female and community educator, I hope our community embraces the OU’s public support for women’s Torah Leadership roles.
I say this in light of the great number of viewpoints and perspectives within our Orthodox community. While my heart aches for the women (including some dear friends) who feel rejected by the authors of the rabbinic teshuva, there are many synagogues that will not hire a maharat or rabbah. For these communities, the OU’s teshuva and statement are incredibly important because the teshuva’s authors, respected rabbis whose guidance is sought for the most weighty questions, are calling for communities to embrace what women can contribute to the synagogue. As the teshuva states, “Women should most enthusiastically be encouraged to share their knowledge, talents, and skills — as well as their passion and devotion — to synagogues, schools and community organizations.”
Imagine that it was common for mainstream Modern Orthodox synagogues throughout the United States to hire a woman on their educational staff. She can teach classes, meet with congregants for counseling and spiritual guidance, build relationships with families over kiddush and Shabbat meals, deliver divrei Torah, prepare women for the halachic and emotional experience of getting married, visit grieving or hospitalized community members, and learn b’chevruta with individuals. She can be in a position of Torah leadership and community guidance, sharing her Torah scholarship and insight while still functioning within the halachic framework of the OU’s teshuva. In that world, I would not need to add my dour caveat when talking to this young, idealistic woman. In such a world, inspired and talented women would know that they can contribute to the broader Modern Orthodox community’s spiritual growth in positions of Torah leadership.
In their statement accompanying the teshuva, the OU’s leadership called for such a world: “We should focus on creating and institutionalizing roles for women that address the needs of Orthodox Jews today, by removing barriers that impede women from further contributing to our community…The failure to fully embrace the talents of women and encourage women to assume greater lay and professional roles is a tragic forfeiture of communal talent…We should fully utilize their talents and commitment.” I hope the OU is successful in creating that world and I look forward to being a part of it. A world where I do not need to dampen expectations when talking about women in spiritual and leadership roles in the Orthodox community. Where incredibly capable young women are able to contribute their talents as teachers and leaders in their synagogues, as well as their schools. A world where synagogues recognize the tremendous value added to the community by hiring women.
Today, communities generally recognize the value of hiring a youth director or assistant rabbi. However, they do not yet realize the incredible benefit to the community of having a woman on the educational staff. I have had the privilege of energizing the women’s side of the mechitzah and making sure all women feel welcome in shul, grabbing a bride’s hands and leading the women’s dancing as her groom was danced around the bimah at his aufruf, leading discussion groups for women to share and discuss their personal spiritual experiences and religious challenges, consoling and counseling women through the upheaval of relationships and difficult lifecycle events while liaising with the rabbis most suited to address the situation, and helping women through the emotional and spiritual challenges of family purity laws and infertility — incredibly important experiences for the women of the community that no man could possibly do in a halachically appropriate way.
The onus is on us. Us, as the larger Orthodox community, to create and financially support these roles in our synagogues and institutions. Us, as the young women who have been blessed with unsurpassed access to Jewish learning, to stand up and teach Torah. Us, as committed Orthodox women to remain optimistic and embrace these historic opportunities to contribute to the Jewish people. Let’s create those jobs. Let’s help the OU, MJE, and all of our synagogues and institutions fundraise, support and bring these opportunities to life. The OU’s leadership believes, “The spiritual growth of our community is dependent upon a steady stream of talented women both serving as role models and teachers, and filling positions of influence.”
It is on us to respond.
Original article can be found here