Before turning 12, the age of bat mitzvah in the Orthodox community where I grew up, I eagerly attended Orthodox Shabbat services with my family. Yes, there were drawn out morning prayers, sermons, announcements, and appeals. But I could sit on either side of the mechitza (partition dividing the space by gender) with either of my parents. When I sat on the men’s side, I visited the “candyman” (there was never a “candywoman”) to get my weekly sugar fix. I could reach out and touch the Torah scroll as it passed through the men’s section before and after Torah reading. I didn’t think twice about approaching the rabbi to wish him a Shabbat Shalom.
I was aware of gender differences – after all, my mother was only permitted to sit in the women’s section with the rest of the women. But it wasn’t until long after I reached bat mitzvah age that I fully absorbed the very different lived experiences that depended on where you sat in the sanctuary, with all that it entails. It was evident to me that, despite making up half the population, women had little choice or input on these matters. I was also aware that many men were unattuned, ambivalent, or opposed to acknowledging women’s disenfranchisement from the very synagogues that had been so central to the men’s lives.
In the years since, I have learned to articulate both the why and the how of improving the shul-going experience on the women’s side of the mechitza. It starts with creating structural equity. For example, when the building’s sanctuary space is structured to be more respectful and inclusive of women, it includes ample seating (without men occupying women’s designated space, even in the absence of women); attention to acoustics, lighting, and sight lines; access to prayer books and chumashim; the structure of the mechitza itself, and of course, visibility of the bimah and pulpit.
To be sure, some Orthodox synagogues have implemented architectural plans with the goal of improving women’s experiences. But this is not only about being able to see the activities of the service. It is also about seeing ourselves – and our daughters seeing themselves – in our role models.
The most effective means to achieve this is by establishing and increasing the number of formalized leadership positions for Orthodox women in Orthodox synagogues. Toward that goal, I am proud to work within the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (Jofa), which recently launched the second cohort of its Devorah Scholars Program, providing funding to enable Orthodox synagogues to hire their first paid full- or part-time Orthodox women in spiritual leadership roles. This program creates opportunities for communities to have a choice as to who their spiritual leaders can be. This groundbreaking opportunity is made possible by a generous grant from Micah Philanthropies, Ann and Jeremy Pava trustees.
Jofa’s Devorah Scholars Program expands opportunities for women to apply their skills to benefit Orthodox synagogues across North America that are committed to women holding paid spiritual leadership positions. For its first cohort, 2020-2022, the selected congregations hired as Devorah Scholars: Rabbanit Avital Engelberg and Rabba Amalia Haas, at Congregation Beth Sholom in Providence, Rhode Island; Rabbanit Dasi Fruchter, at the South Philadelphia Shtiebel, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Rabbanit Jennifer Geretz, at Congregation Netivot Shalom, in Teaneck, New Jersey, and Ruthie Braffman Shulman, at United Orthodox Synagogues, in Houston, Texas – placements where they each successfully fulfilled a range of congregational needs.
For the second cohort, which just began for 2022-2024, participating congregations have hired the following Devorah Scholars, who have already begun work: Rabbanit Atara Lindenbaum, at the Hebrew Institute of White Plains, in White Plains, New York; Rabbanit Yael Keller, at Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob, in Skokie, Illinois, and Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn, at Congregation Netivot Shalom, in Teaneck, New Jersey.
As a first cohort Devorah Scholar at the United Orthodox Synagogues in Houston, Ruthie Braffman Shulman served as both Director of Education and Engagement, and Halakhic (Jewish law) Consultant. Her role as a member of the synagogue’s professional leadership team was multifaceted; she led community educational programming and online current event webinars, and advised community members on halakhic matters.
As she explained, “to have a woman's perspective in the synagogue is so powerful and important. There are so many topics arising in the congregational setting, and in pastoral care surrounding infertility, mikvah, and women’s roles, that having a woman's interpretation has been vital. Women are now comfortable speaking with a female clergy member in a way they haven't been before. It is exciting that this role is now part of the fabric of the synagogue and community.”
Rabbanit Avital Engelberg, who served as Director of Spiritual Engagement at Congregation Beth Sholom in Providence, Rhode Island, helped institute a shift in policy and practice to have bat mitzvah girls deliver their speeches in the main sanctuary, rather than the social hall. This change signaled the centrality of this rite of passage. Rabbanit Dasi Fruchter, who serves as the sole clergy of the South Philadelphia Shtiebel, continues to draw new audiences for enriched Jewish living experiences, vibrant study, and community connection in South Philadelphia.
As this diverse and successful first cohort quickly and decisively demonstrated, having women leaders in paid positions that recognize and validate their value and qualifications dramatically shifts the dynamics on both sides of the mechitza. It sends a clear message that the synagogue is intentionally considering women’s needs. It increases high quality Torah learning and spiritual engagement from previously underutilized resources. Most of all, it shows that impressive, impactful talent and voices for disseminating Torah can emerge from both sides of the mechitza.
Devorah Scholars – and Orthodox female spiritual leaders at large – increase meaning and connection for women who too often feel disengaged, disenfranchised, and even embarrassed; that their presence in shul simply doesn’t matter. Time and again, we hear from women who hesitate to seek out male spiritual guidance on personal matters. Many for the first time have the opportunity to consult female spiritual leaders for advice, information and guidance, on a range of personal and halakhic matters that are beyond their comfort zone to discuss with men.
Devorah Scholars bring to their communities fresh perspectives, unique skills, and a range of talents. They deliver congregational sermons, teach classes, offer spiritual guidance, pastoral care and counseling, and enhance programming.
There are now hundreds of graduates of higher educational institutions for women in advanced halakhic studies, such as Drisha, Nishmat (Yoetzet Halakha program), Ohr Torah Stone, Yeshivat Maharat, Yeshiva University (GPATS), and others. These graduates are well-qualified to serve at the highest levels of leadership, in the Orthodox world and beyond.
Through education and credentialing, they are positioned to break through long standing glass ceilings, serving as Orthodox clergy in pulpits, schools, college campuses, and communal organizations, in a capacity previously unimaginable for Orthodox women. These game changers, along with the organizations and advocates who support them, are building new communities of both men and women who are open and welcoming of women’s leadership and scholarship.
Since its inception 25 years ago, Jofa has sought to expand the spiritual, ritual, intellectual, and leadership opportunities for women within the framework of halakha, to create a vibrant and equitable Orthodox community. We do this by advocating for girls’ and women’s increased, meaningful ritual participation, and widening pathways toward leadership in synagogues, learning institutions, and Jewish communal organizations.
Today, the seeds planted at Jofa’s outset are bearing fruit. It is becoming more common to hear about women engaging in deeper textual studies and earning pastoral, educational, and communal credentials that they seek to put to use in their communities. Indeed, spiritual leadership roles for Orthodox women have increased exponentially.
Today, I am awed to think how far we’ve come from my childhood memories of straddling the opportunity gap between the two sides of the mechitza. Now, when a young girl asks if we can have women as spiritual leaders in our community, the question is no longer “Can we?” – but rather, “How can we not?”
Daphne Lazar Price is Executive Director of Jofa (the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance).