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Orthodox Jewish Woman Takes The Pulpit In D.C.

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Ohev Shalom in NW D.C. is among the first Orthodox Jewish synagogues to hire a woman as a clergy member.
Rebecca Sheir/WAMU
Ohev Shalom in NW D.C. is among the first Orthodox Jewish synagogues to hire a woman as a clergy member.
Ruth Balinsky Friedman is Maharat at Ohev Sholom: The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C.

Since Fall 2013, Ruth Balinsky Friedman has been juggling a multitude of tasks.

Sixteen tasks, to be precise.

“Which means I do a little bit of everything, which is fantastic,” says the 28-year-old native of Evanston, Ill. “And I’m really grateful for that.”

Friedman is the new “maharat” at Ohev Shalom: The National Synagogue, an Orthodox-Jewish temple in Northwest D.C.

“Maharat” is an acronym. It stands for “manhiga hilchatit ruchanit toranit,” a leader in Jewish law, spirituality and in Torah (Jewish teachings).

Friedman is one of just three women in the United States with the title. The women were ordained as Orthodox members of the clergy in June 2013, in the very first graduation ceremony of Yeshivat Maharat, a New York-based institution that trains Orthodox women as spiritual leaders and authorities of Jewish law.

“In Orthodoxy, until recently, women haven’t really served in leadership capacities – in synagogues or even at day school, certainly at the schools I went to,” says Friedman, whose father was the rabbi of her synagogue back home. “So I think that subconsciously I assumed that I would not pursue a career in Orthodox Jewish life because I just didn’t see women really in those positions. I just assumed that was not for me.”

Friedman says it’s exciting to see this new idea of women working in synagogues across the country, but “there isn’t really an existing model for it. So it takes a woman who is interested in this position, which is not that common, and also a synagogue that welcomes female leadership as well, in addition to male leadership.”

Friedman says Ohev Shalom has been extraordinarily welcome since her arrival as what she calls “assistant clergy” (Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld is the “senior,” she says).

“I started off today, for example, taking care of some emails, planning programing that’s coming up at the synagogue,” Friedman says. “As I got ready and did the dishes, I listened to a class on a topic I’m teaching about the Shabbat. I then had a study session with a local female reform rabbi. And then I just went to a conversion, and now I’m back here and we’re about to train people to serve as supervisors of the kosher kitchen.”

Friedman also has officiated at ceremonies, including a funeral, a wedding and a simchat bat.

“[It’s] a ceremony to welcome a new baby girl,” she says. “For boys we have a bris, a ritual circumcision. For girls, many communities have embraced a new ritual called a simchat bat.”

In terms of whether a maharat could be the sole member of the clergy at an Orthodox synagogue, Friedman says “there’s no reason why not. It hasn’t happened yet because we’re pretty young still and not ready to be in those positions.”

But she points out that there are three areas of synagogue life in which Orthodox women may not participate. They do not count toward the minyan – the quorum of 10 men required for communal prayer – nor could they lead those services. Women also cannot serve as a witness to a religious transaction.

“The most common example would probably be a marriage,” Friedman says. “A Jewish wedding ceremony requires two witnesses and a woman cannot serve as one of those two witnesses.”

Friedman emphasizes, however, that although an official rabbi is a member of the clergy, he’s not necessarily involved in leading services. “So none of those three things limits the ability of someone to serve as the member of the clergy of a synagogue or in another capacity,” Friedman says.

Another part of Friedman’s job is pastoral counseling.

“I would say [it’s] a fairly significant one,” she says. “That’s also one that I’m very grateful that I had proper training for.”

When asked whether she thinks men might not feel comfortable seeking guidance from a woman, Friedman says, “I don’t usually break issues down into just men and women. I think there are certain personalities that would come to me, [and] certain personalities would come to go to Rabbi Herzfeld,” one of Friedman’s colleagues.

One of Friedman’s favorite parts of the job is the chance to interact with children at Ohev Shalom.

“They’re wonderful! We have tons of them tons of them which is really great,” she says with a smile. “Our synagogue has a lot of young families. As you see here on my desk I have a couple of drawings one of the girls made for me. So they are a really thriving, wonderful component of the synagogue.”

What’s so marvelous about her involvement with the children as a maharat, she says, “is that for them it will be normal” to see a female clergy member.

“One of the important parts of creating this field of women leadership within Orthodox life is to teach girls that they also can do this if they want,” she says. “They can have their voices be heard in these conversations about Jewish life, and I think that’s really important. And the fact that for a whole group of girls here that’s normal to see, I think that’s really spectacular.”

When asked about the criticism toward maharats that has been voiced by more conservative voices in the Orthodox Jewish community, Friedman says she hasn’t received any personal censures.

“People who may be opposed to the idea, once they see the work that we’re doing here and that the community is supportive and that this brings positive energy to a Jewish Orthodox community, then they’re happy and they understand that this works for this community,” she says.

“I certainly don’t expect it to work for every community, nor do I try to impose it on every community. But for communities that are eager and excited about including women’s leadership, it’s a wonderful thing.”

[Music: "Inside Out" by Paul Cantelon from Everything Is Illuminated Original Soundtrack]

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