Orthodox Union asks women clergy to change their titles

NEW YORK (JTA) — Following its rabbinic ruling prohibiting synagogues from hiring female clergy, the Orthodox Union is pressuring synagogues that have hired the women to change their titles.

In February, the Orthodox Union, an umbrella Orthodox Jewish group, issued a Jewish legal ruling by seven rabbis that bars women from serving as clergy or in a position of spiritual authority. 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, DC, 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 Orthodox seminary here that ordains women as clergy. The maharat title, which was coined by the seminary’s founder, Rabbi Avi Weiss, is a Hebrew acronym for “Jewish legal, spiritual and Torah leader.” In practice, graduates take a range of titles, including rabba and rabbanit.

Rabbi Avi Weiss speaking at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School on 19 November 2007. (photo credit: Drew Kaplan, CC-BY, via wikipedia)

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, likewise, outlines a range of functions women can serve at synagogues, but objects to their taking on positions of authority akin to rabbis.

“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 Mark Bane and Martin Nachimson, who finished his term as president earlier this year. Per OU policy, none of the…

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