Women honor Orthodoxy’s first ‘rabba’
Rabba Sara Hurwitz said she never felt as if she broke through the glass ceiling in 2009 when, in defiance of many Orthodox groups, she was ordained as a member of the clergy by the Orthodox maverick Rabbi Avi Weiss.
It was more like she crashed through a cement ceiling that had held steady for many centuries.
Her semicha (ordination) and the creation by Weiss of Manhattan’s Yeshivat Maharat — the only seminary training Orthodox women for the clergy, where she serves as dean — continue to be flashpoints for traditionalists who believe that only men should perform rabbinic duties.
On Oct. 26, Hurwitz received the annual Myrtle Wreath Award from the Southern New Jersey Region of Hadassah at Forsgate Country Club in Monroe.
Hurwitz, who attended the event with her mother, Melanie Hurwitz, told the more than 300 women gathered for the luncheon that she “stood on the shoulders of a long line of women” who took a stand for their beliefs, including leaders of Hadassah.
“I never had an ‘aha’ moment of wanting to be a rabbi,” said Hurwitz. “I grew up in a traditional home in South Africa, but never had any role models.”
In 1989, while in the eighth grade, the Hurwitz family moved to Florida and the future rabba became drawn to Orthodoxy. She later graduated from Barnard College in New York, studied at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Israel, and graduated from the three-year Scholars Circle Program of the Drisha Institute in New York.
“When I finished college I wanted to remain in the community and learn more as an Orthodox woman, to study Talmud and Jewish law,” said Hurwitz. “When I was finished I connected with Rabbi Avi Weiss and became a congregation intern” at his 650-family synagogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, NY. “It was interesting and fun and I loved it. It was a great fit.”
When she began studying with Weiss, Hurwitz said, her intention was not to become a rabbi, but as time went on it became clear from her affinity for Jewish learning and her interaction with the congregants that she was a natural.
In 2008, she marked the climax of her formal religious studies and the beginning of a new position in the synagogue as “maharat,” a rabbi in all but name. In 2010 she and Weiss agreed that “rabba” better reflected her true position.
Hurwitz has been named by Newsweek as one of the 50 most influential rabbis, and was a top pick in The Forward’s 50 most influential Jewish leaders. She previously received Hadassah’s Bernice S. Tannenbaum Award given for advancing the status of women and girls in the United States and Israel. She is married and the mother of three young children.
After her ordination, the Orthodox world exploded in controversy. Some welcomed the move, but not mainstream Orthodox groups like the Rabbinical Council of America.
“I picked up the phone one day, and the voice on the other end said, ‘You’re destroying the Orthodox community,’” she told the gathering. “I didn’t want to be the first woman with the title rabbi. I wanted the controversy to go away.”
Hurwitz said she might have given up the fight if not for a letter she received from two 11-year-old girls, who thanked her for being a role model.
“I knew in my heart and soul I was motivated by my love of the Jewish people and love for our Torah,” said Hurwitz. “A lot of people are under the assumption I did it to grab the limelight.”
She and Weiss were unsure if other women would enroll in Yeshivat Maharat, and later whether those women would find jobs after graduation.
“To our amazement we received many applications,” said Hurwitz. What’s more, all 20 graduates “have been hired in Orthodox synagogues serving as full members of the clergy.”
Hurwitz said Orthodoxy too often kept women from learning Torah, but now “we have ensured Torah not only survives, but thrives.”
In response to audience questions, Hurwitz said she puts on tefillin and wears a tallit; has officiated at weddings, funerals, brises, and baby namings; and has written and delivered sermons. At the Riverdale shul, she stands on the women’s side of the bima during services, where the mehitza dividing men and women gives both genders nearly equal access.
Although Hurwitz can’t read Torah in a co-ed setting, she can with other women, a practice becoming increasingly popular at traditional synagogues.
Having women in leadership positions, she said, may also direct attention and forge solutions to problems in Orthodoxy such as the aguna issue, where women refused a religious divorce by their husbands are left in limbo.
As the Orthodox become more pluralistic, Hurwitz said she firmly believes it will make the movement “stronger, better, and more inclusive.”