Orthodox Union asks women clergy to change their titles

OU asks synagogues with women 'rabbis' to change their title. The four synagogues refuse to comply. Expulsion considered.

JTA and Arutz Sheva,

Ruth Friedman (left)
Ruth Friedman (left)
Joe Winkler

Following its rabbinic ruling prohibiting synagogues from hiring female clergy, the Orthodox Union is pressuring synagogues which have hired women to fill rabbinic roles to change their titles.

In February, the Orthodox Union (OU), an umbrella Orthodox Jewish group, issued a Jewish legal ruling by seven renowned rabbis barring women from serving as clergy or in a position of spiritual authority. They listed the roles women could fulfill in the religious community, noting that their traditional roles are central and significant..

Four OU synagogues currently have women serving in formal clergy functions.

Now the OU is sending a three-member delegation to meet with the four synagogues to discuss compliance with the ruling — including requesting that at least two of the women clergy change their titles.

The delegation has met with Ohev Shalom in Washington, D.C., which employs Ruth Friedman, who uses the title maharat; Beth Sholom in Potomac, Maryland, where Hadas Fruchter also is a maharat, and Bnai David-Judea in Los Angeles, where Alissa Thomas-Newborn uses the title rabbanit. They have yet to meet with the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, which employs Ramie Smith, whose title is rabba.

All four are graduates of Yeshivat Maharat, a liberal seminary belonging to a group that calls itself "Open Orthodox,," although many rabbis consider it neo-Conservative, which "ordains" women as clergy. The maharat title, which was coined by the seminary’s founder, Rabbi Avi Weiss,in an obvious move to get by the halakhic problems, is a Hebrew acronym for "Jewish legal, spiritual and Torah leader." In practice, graduates take a range of titles, including rabba and rabbanit.

Allowing women to serve as clergy is the level of decision that would have to be made by the leading halakhic decisors in order to be accepted and, in fact, they have decided to forbid it.

In the meeting Wednesday with Ohev Shalom, the delegation spoke with Friedman about her responsibilities at the synagogue and asked her to change her title. Friedman said that she, along with the synagogue’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, will not agree to that.

The delegation met with Thomas-Newborn and Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky at Bnai David-Judea earlier this month. While Kanefsky would not discuss the meeting’s specifics, he confirmed that Thomas-Newborn’s title and job description were the primary issue. Fruchter confirmed that her meeting occurred but was unable to discuss its specifics.

Friedman said the delegation did not raise any other issues with her professional responsibilities aside from her title. The OU’s ruling outlines a range of functions women can serve at synagogues, but objects to their taking on positions of authority akin to rabbis, especially halakhic issues..

"They’re not comfortable with the title," Friedman told JTA on Friday. "It’s a pretty transparent way of saying 'we don’t have a problem with the work you do. We’re not comfortable recognizing that you have a title that connotes a certain respect and education and professionalism.'"

The members of the OU’s delegation, none of whom are rabbis, are Executive Vice President Allen Fagin, President Martin Nachimson and Mark Bane, who finished his term as president earlier this year. Per OU policy, none of the three are commenting on the meetings. An OU spokeswoman said she could not comment on the matter.

From the OU’s standpoint, the meetings have been preliminary, fact-finding sessions. There has been no decision rendered on what steps the group might take should it feel the synagogues are not complying with the ruling. But Herzfeld of Ohev Shalom told JTA that the delegation did not exclude the possibility of expulsion from the OU over the issue.

"It felt like a threat because they sent three men to our congregation and interrogated us about our practices," he told JTA. "And they said everything is on the table, and they said we’re not in compliance. I took that as a threat, that there’s a possibility of expulsion from the OU They did not deny that."

Both Friedman and Kanefsky said they would not compromise on the title.

Kanefsky said the best outcome would be to "agree to disagree."

"I’m an optimistic person, but at the same time I could not describe to you what that compromise would look like," she told JTA on Friday. "We are not going to make any changes to Rabbanit Alissa’s title or job description."

When he founded Yeshivat Maharat in 2009, Weiss created the title in order to avoid the issue of ordaining women as rabbis. But that was a transparent move and it has not happened. The Rabbinical Council of America, the umbrella organization of US Modern Orthodox rabbis, banned synagogues from hiring women clergy in 2015 and the OU followed suit this year.