Forward Thinking

Maharats Win Support of Jewish Women

By Anne Cohen

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The first class of maharats may be controversial among the Orthodox. But the graduates enjoy overwhelming support from Jewish women from other denominations, who see the battle for recognition as part and parcel of the struggles they faced — and won.

“It’s an affirmation of everything that has led to this moment, as well as creating a direction for the future,” said Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, head of the Reform Women’s Rabbinic Network. “Women in the Modern Orthodox community have really stepped up and taken their place in the halls of Jewish learning.”

Both the Reform and Conservative movements ordain women rabbis.

Ellenson attended the graduation with her husband, Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Conservative Jews also backed the maharats.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, president and executive vice president, respectively, of the conservative Rabbinical Assembly, expressed the organization’s support for the three graduates in a statement issued on June 18.

“We know that the voices of Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Rachel Kohl Finegold and Abby Brown Scheier, each of whom will be known as ‘maharat,’ will reflect their great level of learning and their preparedness for leadership,” they wrote. “They will inspire other women to achieve the highest level of Jewish learning as they express their own religious commitment and understanding in a way that will strengthen the entire Jewish community.”

Rabbi Ilana Garber, co-chair of the Women’s Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly, says that women in religious leadership positions need to stick together.

“Who doesn’t face opposition? There will always be opposition,” she said.” Strong women need to continue to be strong and be grateful for our strong male allies. It’s never going to be perfect. “

Some whispered that the vocal support of Reform and Conservative Jewry might boomerang by causing Orthodox leaders to circle the wagons in defense of traditionalism.

“I think the naysayers will say what they want to say, regardless,” Kohl Finegold said. “But having 500 people [at] that [graduation] speaks for itself.”

Contact Anne Cohen at cohen@forward.com


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