Orthodox shul embraces new role of women in congregational leadership


When Rabbi Hyim Shafner realized that the programming and outreach needs at his congregation, Bais Abraham, were growing, he knew he needed to hire a new staff member. However, he sought someone who would not only coordinate and plan events, but teach, enrich and instruct his congregation.

“I realized that we needed someone who not only could help us focus on programming but somebody who could also advise people on their Jewish journey and give them guidance,” Shafner said.

Shafner chose Rori Picker Neiss to join Bais Abraham as its Director of Programming, Education and Community Involvement. Neiss, along with her husband, Russel, and two children, will move to St. Louis from her native New York in August.

After studying remotely, Neiss will graduate with the 2014 class of Yeshivat Maharat, the New York school that describes itself as “the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as spiritual leaders and halakhic authorities.”

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“I thought a lot about how a lot of my congregants were women, maybe over half,” Shafner said of his choice to bring the job search to Yeshivat Maharat. “If we really believe, as we do in Orthodoxy, that men and women are fundamentally different and they do play different roles, and that gender does matter, it doesn’t make sense to just have a male leader.”

The school, which is the brainchild of Modern Orthodox rabbi and activist Avi Weiss, has attracted its share of controversy from traditional groups like the Rabbinical Council of America for the decision to ordain women in clerical roles.

However, rather than label its graduates as rabbis, Yeshivat Maharat grants the title maharat, an acronym that stands for the various functions of a female leader in Hebrew.

And although the clerical functions of a rabbi and a maharat are similar, Shafner said that the title represents more than a just an unwillingness to call female scholars by a more traditional name.

“In my mind, it’s because to just call these women rabbis would be to say, ‘We’re just trying to fit you into a box, a male box,’” he said. “I think that it’s a recognition of the fact that men and women aren’t really the same, and they’re going to forge Jewish leadership in a different way.”

Neiss agreed that the term was more than just a substitute for the title of rabbi.

“[The name maharat] recognizes the cultural, political, religious elements of Orthodoxy,” she said. “It recognizes that in Orthodoxy we have not had female rabbis, but that doesn’t mean that we have not had a place for female leadership.”

Shafner said that requests have been pouring in from community members to have Neiss teach classes, lead events and tutor their children for bar and bat mitzvahs.

However, Neiss said that her first priority in St. Louis will be to gauge where her skills, energy and guidance are needed.

“I really want to do what’s meaningful for the people in this community,” she said. “So first, the most important thing for me to do is figure out what that is.”

Neiss said that the only ire she has ever attracted for her soon-to-be status as a maharat has been from the media; the rest of the wariness, she said is “mostly in the abstract.”

“Most of the time, I think that when people have actually met us [maharat students] and interacted with us, they realize that we’re not nearly as scary as they think,” she said.

Shafner said that 20 years ago, the time would not have been right to introduce a female leader like a maharat. However, he said, times have evolved to make women educated, capable leaders.

“I think that the reason there’s controversy is that people think, ‘Oh, we’re just going to have women rabbis,’” Shafner said. “People worry, ‘Does that mean we’re the reform movement?’ No. But, of course there’s a lot of precedents of women leaders: Miriam, Deborah; leaders of the Jewish people.

“Men and women see the world differently, they relate to different kinds of people differently, the path of their exploration in Torah must be different because they are fundamentally different,” he added. “So it’s really important to have a male voice in leadership, but also a female one.”