Three years ago this month, Rabba Sara Hurwitz made history in the Jewish world by becoming the first publicly ordained female rabbi in the Orthodox community. Since then, the 35-year-old mother of three has been working as Dean of Yeshivat Maharat, an institution dedicated to training women Orthodox clergy, as well as working as Rabba at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. The first three women are set to graduate this June with the title of Maharat — an acronym for “Religious, spiritual, Torah leaders” — marking yet another important milestone for women in Orthodoxy. Rabba Hurwitz spoke to The Sisterhood to explain what this all means.
THE SISTERHOOD: What has changed for you over the past three years?
RABBA SARA HURWITZ: The biggest change is the flourishing of Yeshivat Maharat, and the continuation of Orthodox women serving in communities. The graduation of the first three students this coming June fills me a tremendous amount of excitement and gratification. I have students currently working in synagogues, one in a school, one in a JCC and one in a Hillel. That’s real movement.
What kind of feedback have you received from the Orthodox community?
I think there has been noticeable change since I received my title. I’ve been doing a fair amount of traveling around the country and I think Orthodox communities are much more open to seeing women as spiritual leaders. In fact they are beginning to want it, to request it, which I think is a real shift.
Part of the ability of women to lead relies on rabbis who have the courage to hire women as interns and graduates. I’ve been seeing a shift in the number of rabbis who recognize the importance of having women and who are eager to have women. I’m really grateful for these rabbis who are helping women carve out positions as leaders in the community.
Newsweek is just out with its 4th annual list of what it deems to be “the 50 most influential rabbis in America.”
This year, as last, few women have made the cut and all but one are in the bottom half of the list.
The first woman to appear — Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus, the president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis — comes in at position number 17. Still, it’s one higher than her ranking on last year’s list, when she was also the highest-placed member of the female rabbinate.
In all, six female rabbis were included this year. With one more than last year, at least there’s an upward trend, even if it is slow.
The others dubbed worthy of the 2010 list are Rabbis Sharon Kleinbaum of New York’s GLBTQ synagogue Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, Sharon Brous, founder of the progressive Los Angeles congregation Ikar, Naomi Levy, a well-known speaker and founder of L.A. outreach organization Nashuva, and Jill Jacobs, a social justice visionary and rabbi-in-residence at the Jewish Funds for Justice.