Orthodox women crossing threshold into synagogue

NEW YORK — Julie Stern Joseph says she is not a "revolutionary," and Sharona Margolin Halickman laughs off the idea of being a trailblazer. But these women, both in their mid-20s and married, have broken through a barrier for New York Orthodox women.

Both the Lincoln Square Synagogue, a popular modern Orthodox congregation on the Upper West Side, and the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, in the Bronx, have established a "communal" leadership position that gives these women a formal pastoral and educational role in their congregations.

Struggling to define the role, the two synagogues have designated them "interns," a rather hollow and misleading title. It implies, incorrectly, an apprenticeship of sorts for these two highly educated women, who took up their posts earlier this year.

The title, though, reflects both the novelty of the position and the awkwardness of their role in their congregations. The moniker is meant to ensure that no one mistakes the new position as a "rabbi in training."

In the Orthodox view of Jewish law, women may not be ordained.

"It is a communal role, rather than a rabbinic role or a quasi-rabbinic role," said Rabbi Adam Mintz of Lincoln Square.

"There's no thought that this role will evolve into a rabbinic position for women. If there was, then I wouldn't be involved," said Stern Joseph, the intern at Lincoln Square. "My goal is not that I want to achieve a title. I want to provide a service."

Rabbi Avi Weiss, who created the post at the Hebrew Institute, also stressed that this is a non-rabbinic role.

"It is a distinct role in which and through which women can make a spiritual impact," he said. "The call for women to be rabbis is unhelpful. It has halachic problems."

The topic has been highly sensitive within centrist Orthodoxy recently, as women with sophisticated secular education have been recognized to have the capacity — and desire — for opportunities to study Judaism's primary texts.

Although women are barred from certain functions in the Orthodox tradition, the congregational door should not be closed entirely, the women say.

"If I have the background of a rabbi, but don't want to be a rabbi for Orthodox reasons, I should not be shut out of opportunities," said Margolin Halickman, who was hired as the intern in Riverdale. "We want to play a greater role."

As a graduate student at the Azrieli School of Education at Yeshiva University, Margolin Halickman studied alongside a number of male rabbinic students.

"I studied the same things as the guys," she said. "There's no reason that women on that level can't be as involved in Jewish education as men can be. Within the halachic framework, there is a lot of room."

Margolin Halickman and Stern Joseph are part of a new generation of Orthodox women with extensive Jewish education who are seeking new ways, commensurate with their advanced scholarship, to participate in the community.

"Our communities are so synagogue-based that in order to affect adults or the community, one has to be in the synagogue," said Stern Joseph.

A candidate for a doctorate in medieval Jewish history at Yeshiva University, Stern Joseph studied at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem from 1991 to 1993, and again last year. She is a scholar at Drisha, the Manhattan institute where women are engaged in Jewish studies full time, and comes from a tradition that reveres education for Orthodox women. Her late grandfather, Max Stern, in 1954 endowed Yeshiva University's Stern College, the first college for Orthodox women.

"I don't perceive myself as a revolutionary," said Stern Joseph, who was chosen for the post from among Drisha scholars. "This is something that should be normal in the community, considering that these are roles that women have performed for so long."

Although there are no halachic problems with women engaging in adult education, counseling or making hospital visits, in American congregational life, they are generally part of the rabbi's routine and often are assigned to a newly ordained "assistant" rabbi.

Both Mintz and Weiss — who came up with the idea independently — noted that to help their congregations, they needed the services of a woman. Mintz said that Stern Joseph would be especially helpful in counseling women who might feel uncomfortable talking to a man. Weiss cited a recent conversion of a 12-year-old girl, who was comforted when Margolin Halickman joined her at the mikvah for moral support.

It is common for women to teach Torah, said Margolin Halickman, who studied at Machon Gold in Jerusalem in 1991 and 1992.

"I don't find the internship to be out of the ordinary. It is just the next step, committing more to the synagogue," she said.

The "internship" is a response to the need to include women within the Orthodox synagogue, said Mintz. He was looking for a means to "maximize a woman's involvement in the community, in the ways that are permitted and actually encouraged by the tradition, rather than become involved in ritual matters, which has become very controversial."

Mintz created the position for Stern Joseph, he said, in the hope that it would give women a "certain amount of power and a certain role within the mainstream synagogue."

Stern Joseph will not have a role in the main service. But at Riverdale, Weiss said, "When the occasion arises, [Margolin Halickman] is welcome to teach Torah on Shabbat morning." And though her divrei Torah will only be occasional, she will deliver them from the pulpit.

Neither rabbi nor intern reported any complaints about the arrangement from congregants.