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Come, Join Us

I remember my excitement upon hearing about Yeshivat Maharat’s  ordination of women. As a supporter of female Jewish leadership in all of its forms, I was thrilled at the idea. Evidently, Jessica Cavanagh-Melhado, a contributor to JWA’s blog, felt the same way. In June 2013, she wrote a piece entitled, We Begin to Become a Multitude. In the piece, she describes her experience attending the first ever ordination of women as open Orthodox female spiritual leaders. She explains the similarities between this event and the many ordinations she’s been to before. And then, she begins to describe this event’s historical significance. Her excitement in explaining the event is palpable, and as a feminist, I entirely understand it.

I’ve heard a lot of this kind of talk, of Maharats making history. But I’d like to zoom out a little. You see, I’m a Conservative Jew. You know, the community where we’ve been emphasizing the importance of halacha (Jewish law) and also of ordaining women as rabbis since 1983. And to be honest, I’m a little unimpressed with Maharats. To me, their ordination holds little historical significance, if any. The Reform movement has been ordaining women since 1972. The Reform Movement, granted, did not have to overcome the same hurdles, as it does not see Halacha as binding, but that does not denote the actual historical significance of their actions, and of beginning to introduce female jewish leadership into the mainstream. However, in the Conservative movement, women have been ordained within halachik boundaries since 1983. For some reason, it wasn’t cool when we did it.

I’d like to make clear how much I support the endeavors of Yeshivat Maharat. As I said, putting women in a position of Jewish leadership is, in my book, always a step in the right direction. Nonetheless, I’m frustrated, and honestly, I’m lonely. As a kid, I spent many shabbatot feeling very alone. Conservative kids who go to shul every shabbos are few and far between, and after shul, I often found myself with no one around and nothing to do. It was largely for this reason that I chose to attend a Modern Orthodox high school. I was looking for a community. The Conservative Movement is struggling, as is every middle of the road movement at this moment in time. The fact that the world seems to have turned to extremes in all things is clear (cue the emergence of Donald Trump/Bernie Sanders), but my middle of the road, halachik egalitarianism, is important. We’re still here, but our numbers are dwindling, and it’s a little scary to watch. We are not, however, struggling to decide whether or not to be committed to halacha. We are also not struggling to decide whether or not men and women can be equal in a halachik context. We are certain that they can be. But for our numbers to be one’s main reason for objecting to Conservative Judaism is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Yeshivat Maharat, a progressive institution to be certain, will inherently continue to question their own end goal. In other words, as progressive leaders of Orthodox feminism, they’re going to keep working, and pushing, and questioning. As is obvious in the recent discussion of women as rabbis with the RCA (Rabbinical Counsel of America), even they are not accepted in mainstream Orthodoxy. If your own community no longer accepts you, don’t you think it might be time to stop trying so hard to “fit in?” There are promising communities of halachikally committed egalitarian Jews all over the country who would be happy to ordain women and have them as their spiritual leaders and their *gasp* rabbis.

My feelings on the ordination of Maharats are complicated. On the one hand, I truly believe it to be a step in the right direction. On the other, I’m insulted. We are here. We are committed to halacha, and committed to egalitarianism. So if you’re stuck feeling like there is no community of observant Jews who hold your values, maybe look again. If you are like me and want more, I want you to know that we’re here, and we would love it if you’d join us. I’m still young, and right now I’m wondering where I’ll feel most comfortable in the future, but if you, the leaders, the thinkers, and the shapers, wanted to join me right now in this fully egalitarian world, I’d love to have you.

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B'nai Jacob Synagogue
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View over the mechitza (divider between men and women) from the women's balcony of the B'nai Jacob Synagogue (Ottumwa, Iowa).
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How to cite this page

Fish-Bieler, Hani. "Come, Join Us." 19 February 2016. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 14, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/come-join-us>.

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