Zelda R. Stern's Speech Announcing the Initiative to Fund a Maharat Leadership Position

Mon, 05/13/2013 - 12:48pm -- JOFA

The following are remarks made by JOFA founding Board Member Zelda R. Stern announcing the initiative to fund a Maharat position in the National Synagogue in Washington, DC

By Zelda R. Stern

Zelda SternParshat Behar, which we read this past Shabbat, was my Bat-Mitzvah Parshah.  Having been raised along with my five siblings in a Conservative Jewish home, I was privileged to celebrate a Bat-Mitzvah, something not yet done in 1962 in the Orthodox world.  And I was fortunate that my parents rejoiced in the Bat Mitzvah celebrations of my three sisters and me and afforded us the same dignity and value as they did the Bar-Mitzvahs of my two brothers.

In my 20s I became more observant, and finally, in my late 20s, declared myself Orthodox, having fallen in love with the richness and depth of learning and ritual I found in the Orthodox world.

I continued on my journey, but in my late 40s began to feel increasing discomfort with the way women were excluded from so much of Orthodox life.

And I remembered my Bat-Mitzvah and how we 13 year old girls were honored and valued.

I felt lonely in my distress at the numerous ways the Orthodox world devalued women, but I did not know who I could share my concerns and questions with, until I attended the first International JOFA conference in 1997, an event that changed my life.

Here was a like-minded group of women and men who could share my anguish over agunot, who would understand my distress at the exclusion from ketubot of the names of the mothers of the kallah and chatan, and who also wondered why shul scholars-in-residence were always men.

Through my involvement with JOFA, my need to empower and dignify women grew into a fierce passion.  And along with this passion came my growing knowledge and certainty that I would put my money where my passion was.  And this is indeed what I did and do.

For more than 15 years now we have lived through increasing opportunities for Orthodox women in all spheres of religious life, many of these opportunities and changes having been created, nurtured or developed through JOFA’s education and advocacy.

As we have grown, we have also increasingly appreciated the importance of partnering with other organizations whose hearts, minds and missions complement ours.

And now we are about to take our rightful place in another great movement and another great partnership:  JOFA and Yeshivat Maharat.  On June 16, three women will be ordained – they will be receiving smicha – from this Yeshiva. 

One of the graduates, Ruth Balinsky Friedman was recently hired as the Maharat at Ohev Sholom, the National Synagogue in DC, where Shmuel Herzfeld is the rabbi.  And this happened because the shul wanted a Maharat but did not have the funding.  Through numerous negotiations over many weeks involving Rabbi Herzfeld, Rabba Sara Hurwitz, Elana, Allie Alperovich, and me, I agreed to provide funding for half of the salary of the Maharat position for two years. 

Meaningful change happens in so many ways: Grassroots or top down, through articles and speeches and protests. But change also involves money.  I titled a presentation I once gave at a JOFA conference: Making Change: The Power of the Purse. It’s true: Money makes change.

Hakarat hatov to Judy Heicklen, who was enthusiastic about this project from the get-go; to Allie, who mentored and coached Ruth and was invaluable in helping her negotiate a good and fair contract; and to the fearless Elana, who as cheerleader, strategizer and persistent and tireless force of life, intervened and moved the project along at crucial moments.  And aharona aharona haviva to the quietly formidable, awe-inspiring Rabba Sara Hurwitz, who has had the vision, the strength, and the tenacity to enable us to reach this day.  She has been vilified by too many for too long. Ad kama v’kama she needs our support.

I never thought I would live to see the day that women would serve as rabbis in Orthodox shuls.  For that is what they are – rabbis – no matter what titles they will hold.

May JOFA continue to imagine, inspire, educate, and advocate for a changed future for women and for men, a future that actually is already here.

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