In 2009, when Rabbi Weiss and I founded Yeshivat Maharat, the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as clergy, there was only one person who we knew would be crazy enough to dream with us. I went to see Belda, to ask for seed funding. I was nervous. Having only just been ordained myself, I was not a fundraiser. So I took Rabbi Jeff Fox, our Rosh Yeshiva, along with me. We sat together and talked about an Orthodox Jewish community where men and women could be partners in spiritual leadership. Then, Rabbi Fox asked her for a gift. Belda looked directly at me with those beautiful eyes lined with laugh lines and said, “I will give you what you asked for. But, Sara, this is the last time that a man will ask on your behalf. Find the courage, hold your head up high, and ask.” That was Belda.
Belda once wrote: “My mother, myself, and my two daughters represent the ‘chut hameshulash,’ the threefold chain that cannot be broken, that chain of feminist thought and action which will extend to future generations until equity and justice for women become a Jewish religious norm.” She began by modeling her life on her mother’s as a traditional Orthodox wife and mother, but when her daughters were born, she realized she had disconnected from the meaning behind the rituals because she was excluded from participating. She was driven to give her daughters the opportunities that had been denied to her, and it was that determination to keep one foot firmly in traditional Judaism and the other in feminist ideals of inclusion that made her a model for so many of us.
Belda was a formidable advocate for Orthodox women. With deep integrity and grace and often a witty sense of humor, Belda demanded justice. At an early JOFA conference, a rabbi commented that it was not becoming for feminists to be so angry. Belda stood up and responded: “I am angry. It is no longer acceptable for women to be left out of communal leadership, of participating in Torah and in ritual.” Because she was passionate about tradition, halakhah, and ritual, she refused to accept the status quo: that women were left out of our rich tradition. And so she transformed her anger into action and, together with her husband Marcel, changed the course of the modern Orthodox community by building Jewish institutions where women’s Torah scholarship, authority, and leadership have become part of the fabric of the Jewish communal landscape.
I met Belda when I was a student at Drisha, where she served as board president. But long before I knew her personally, Belda helped shape my destiny. Because of Belda, I was able to call myself an Orthodox feminist, become involved in JOFA, study gemara at Midreshet Lindenbaum (the women’s yeshiva she co-founded in Israel), learn at Drisha, and then go on to found and run Yeshivat Maharat.
Belda didn’t only build institutions, but studied Torah as well. Our conversations ranged from discussing the halakhic ramifications of agunot (women unable to get divorces) to one of her favorite topics: opening up umbrellas on Shabbat. She knew Torah. But, she wanted to use that knowledge to expand the walls of the beit midrash so that women’s scholarship and voices could resonate loudly within its walls. Weeks before she passed away, she heard that her granddaughter would not be allowed to sing a solo at a choir performance and began once again to advocate for women’s voices.
That was Belda. She wanted to live in a Jewish community, and wanted her children and grandchildren to grow up in a world where women and men have the same access to text and ritual. She knew that women would be held back from the highest positions of leadership unless they learned Torah. So she acted with passion, breaking barriers, making an indelible mark on female scholarship.
I was always waiting for the perfect opportunity to say thank you to Belda for the deep impact that she had on my life. So, Belda: When I finished the Scholars Circle at Drisha, you encouraged me at the graduation, telling me that there was more work to be done. You told me that it’s okay to be angry and impatient, but to keep moving forward. You demanded that I be my best self: A scholar, a fundraiser, a teacher, and a leader. And you inspired me to keep dreaming. I will be forever grateful to you and Marcel for trusting my vision and taking a chance on me. You have helped build one of the most innovative breakthroughs for women. Because of you, Orthodox women don’t just dream about being rabbis, they can become part of the clergy. Belda, I had always harbored this secret hope that Yeshivat Maharat could give you semikhah (ordination), not because you needed the recognition or authority, but because you were driven by a love for Torah. Like Avraham, you have asked us to join you in being a guardian of “tzedekah u’ mishpat,” charity and justice.