Orthodox Jewish Woman Takes The Pulpit In D.c. (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Orthodox Jewish Woman Takes The Pulpit In D.C.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:09
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir. And as we continue our "Against the Odds" show, we'll head next to a kitchen, but not just any kitchen.

MS. RUTH BALINSKY FRIEDMAN

00:00:21
So, this is the dairy kitchen. You can see it's a bit smaller.

SHEIR

00:00:24
Indeed. As 28-year-old Ruth Balinksy Friedman points out, the dairy kitchen is a bit smaller than the other kitchen, the meat kitchen, here at Ohev Shalom: The National Synagogue, an orthodox Jewish temple in northwest D.C.

FRIEDMAN

00:00:36
We're gonna try to keep the door to whatever kitchen is not being used closed when the other kitchen's in use. You know, just 'cause like, sometimes for cooking events, there might be a lot of people here, and just, you know, it's easier to keep track of everybody that way.

SHEIR

00:00:49
Friedman is leading a training session for congregants interested in becoming a Mashgiach. That's the person who makes sure kosher kitchens are in accordance with kashrut, or Jewish dietary laws.

FRIEDMAN

00:00:57
Basically, in order to serve as a Mashgiach here, one should be fully shomer shabbos and shomer kashrut.

SHEIR

00:01:04
This type of training is just one of Balinsky's many jobs as Ohev Shalom's new "Maharat."

SHEIR

00:01:10
The "Maharat's" not actually a Hebrew word, right?

FRIEDMAN

00:01:12
Correct. It's an acronym. It stands for manhiga hilchatit ruchanit toranit, which means a leader in Jewish law, spirituality and in Torah, in Jewish teachings.

SHEIR

00:01:24
Balinsky is one of just three women with that title. They were ordained as orthodox members of the clergy this past June in the very first graduation ceremony of Yeshivat Maharat, a New York-based institution training Orthodox women as spiritual leaders and authorities of Jewish law. Maharat Ruth grew up in a modern orthodox family in Evanston, Illinois. Her father was the community's rabbi. Just before the Mashgiach training, I had a chance to sit down with Ruth, in her office, where she told me, when she was younger, she never could have foreseen herself taking this path.

FRIEDMAN

00:01:54
In Orthodoxy, typically, until recently, women haven't really served in leadership capacities -- in synagogues or even at day school, certainly the schools that I went to. And so I think that, subconsciously, I just kind of assumed that I would not pursue a career in Orthodox Jewish life, because I just didn't see women really in those positions. And so I think, you know, just assumed that was not for me.

SHEIR

00:02:18
So given that subconscious thought you had growing up, are you kind of among a rare breed right now, in terms of Orthodox women doing what you're doing?

FRIEDMAN

00:02:27
Yeah. Absolutely. There are only a handful of Orthodox women working in synagogues across the country. This is a new idea, clearly. And so it's not -- there isn't really an existing model for it. And 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.

SHEIR

00:02:48
In terms of duties, we've got the rabbi. We've got you. I know there's a lot of overlap. Can you sort of talk about what he does, what you do, where they differ, where they connect?

FRIEDMAN

00:02:57
Our roles, I would say, differ, primarily in terms of that I really fill the position of like an assistant clergy, whereas he is the senior. So folks often say like, oh, so what's your job like? And my response is always that my job description has 16 items on it, which means I do a little bit of everything, which is fantastic. And I'm really grateful for that. So, I started off today, for example, taking care of some emails, planning programming that's coming up at the synagogue. 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. We study together once a week. 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 at the kosher kitchen.

SHEIR

00:03:41
But then you can also do sermons, you can officiate ceremonies. Can you talk about that?

FRIEDMAN

00:03:44
In terms of ceremonies, specifically, so I have officiated at a couple of what's called a simchat bat, which is a ceremony to welcome a new baby girl, really into the faith and into the community. You know, for boys, we have a bris, a ritual circumcision. And so, for girls, many communities have embraced a new ritual called a simchat bat. So I've officiated at a couple of those, officiated at a funeral, unfortunately, and yeah, I've been involved in a wedding. And so, a little bit of everything, once again, happening here.

SHEIR

00:04:16
It's true that, obviously, there's a much more open minded mentality here. But how do you feel about the fact that, in Orthodoxy, you can't go from assistant to senior?

FRIEDMAN

00:04:25
You know, that's an interesting question. Some people have asked me that question is could a maharat be the sole member of the clergy at a synagogue? And the answer is, there's no reason why not. It hasn't happened yet, primarily because we're pretty young still, and not ready to be in those positions. The limitations of a woman's role in Orthodoxy are true for all women in Orthodoxy, and by that, I mean there are three areas of synagogue life, that women would not participate.

FRIEDMAN

00:04:49
So, women, myself included, do not count towards the quorum of 10 men, called a minyan, that is required for communal prayer. A woman could not lead those services either. And then, a woman cannot serve as a witness to a religious transaction. So, the most common example would probably be a marriage. So, a Jewish wedding ceremony requires two witnesses, and a woman cannot serve as one of those witnesses. Now, as I always mention, because I know this isn't true of all faiths, the rabbi, a member of the clergy, is not necessarily involved in leading services.

FRIEDMAN

00:05:25
Rabbi Herzfeld here does not usually lead services. And so, none of those three things, at all, limits the ability of someone to serve as the member of the clergy of a synagogue or in another capacity.

SHEIR

00:05:37
What about the kids here? The young people? What have interactions been like with them?

FRIEDMAN

00:05:41
I adore the kids here. They're wonderful. We have tons of them, which is really great. Our synagogue has a lot of young families. As you see here on my desk, I have a couple of drawings of one of the girls here made for me. So, they are a really thriving, wonderful component of the synagogue.

SHEIR

00:05:57
What do you think it's like for these little girls to see you here, as the Maharat, to see a woman in this position?

FRIEDMAN

00:06:03
I think the great thing is that, for them, it will be normal. That is what is really exciting. I think one of the important parts of creating this field of womens' leadership within Orthodox life, you know, it's not for me, it's to teach girls that they also can do this, if they want to. And 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 boys and girls here, that's normal to see. I think it's really spectacular.

SHEIR

00:06:34
You know, there are members of the Jewish community who have much more old school thoughts about it. Have you had any personal encounters with people, or...

FRIEDMAN

00:06:43
You know, it's so -- it's pretty easy to say something about a person or a movement, you know, on a blog, let's say. Or in a Facebook comment, but when you actually encounter someone face to face, those types of interactions are very rare. And so, I think that once people see, even 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.

FRIEDMAN

00:07:33
I certainly don't expect it to work for every community, nor do I try to impose it on every community, but for the communities that are eager and excited about including womens' leadership, it's a wonderful thing. And so, I think people, even if they're not personally onboard, that they respect that.

SHEIR

00:07:36
That was Ruth Balinsky Friedman, or "Maharat" Ruth of Ohev Shalom: The National Synagogue, in Northwest, D.C.
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