Orthodox Union

OU acts on Rabbi-like positions for women


Following its rabbinic ruling prohibiting synagogues from hiring female clergy, the Orthodox Union is pressuring synagogues that have hired the women to change their titles.

In February, the OU issued a Jewish legal ruling by seven rabbis that bars women from serving as clergy or in a position of spiritual authority. Four OU synagogues currently have women serving in formal clergy functions.

Now the OU is sending a three-member delegation to meet with the four synagogues to discuss compliance with the ruling — including requesting that at least two of the women clergy change their titles.

The delegation has met with Ohev Shalom in Washington, which employs Ruth Friedman, who uses the title maharat; Beth Sholom in Potomac, Maryland, where Hadas Fruchter also is a maharat, and Bnai David-Judea in Los Angeles, where Alissa Thomas-Newborn uses the title rabbanit. They have yet to meet with the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, which employs Ramie Smith, whose title is rabba.

All four are graduates of Yeshivat Maharat, a liberal Orthodox seminary here that ordains women as clergy. The maharat title, which was coined by the seminary’s founder, Rabbi Avi Weiss, is a Hebrew acronym for “Jewish legal, spiritual and Torah leader.” In practice, graduates take a range of titles, including rabba and rabbanit.

In the meeting with Ohev Shalom, the delegation spoke with Friedman about her responsibilities at the synagogue and asked her to change her title. Friedman said that she, along with the synagogue’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, will not agree to that.

The members of the OU’s delegation, none of whom are rabbis, are Executive Vice President Allen Fagin, President Martin Nachimson and Mark Bane, who finished his term as president earlier this year. Per OU policy, none of the three are commenting on the meetings. An OU spokeswoman said she could not comment on the matter.

From the OU’s standpoint, the meetings have been preliminary, fact-finding sessions. There has been no decision rendered on what steps the group might take should it feel the synagogues are not complying with the ruling. But Herzfeld of Ohev Shalom told JTA that the delegation did not exclude the possibility of expulsion from the OU over the issue.

“It felt like a threat because they sent three men to our congregation and interrogated us about our practices,” he told JTA. “And they said everything is on the table, and they said we’re not in compliance. I took that as a threat, that there’s a possibility of expulsion from the OU. They did not deny that.”

“I’m an optimistic person, but at the same time I could not describe to you what that compromise would look like,” Kanefsky said.

When he founded Yeshivat Maharat in 2009, Weiss created the title in order to avoid the issue of ordaining women as rabbis. The Rabbinical Council of America banned synagogues from hiring women clergy in 2015 and the OU followed suit this year.

“I’m sad for Orthodoxy that there’s so much attention devoted to what women can’t do,” Friedman said. “Maybe we can think of a more constructive identity for our movement than ‘women don’t do stuff in Orthodoxy’.”