זה דור דורשיו מבקשי פניך יעקב סלה פליגי בה רבי יהודה נשיאה ורבנן חד אמר דור לפי פרנס וחד אמר פרנס לפי דורו
This is the generation of Jacob who seeks You (Psalms 24:6).’ Rabbi Yehudah the Leader and the Rabbis argue (on the meaning of this verse). One says that the (state of) the generation depends on its leaders, and the other says that the (state of) the leaders depend on the generation. (Talmud Arakhin 17a)
Since 1997, JOFA has been advocating for expanding women's rights and opportunities within the framework of halakha, to build a vibrant and equitable Orthodox community. Despite being another year marked by a pandemic when Orthodox synagogues, our key institutions, had to balance Covid-compliant safety rules with halachic requirements, 5781 was also a year when women rose to the occasion and demonstrated strong leadership in Orthodox synagogues. Whether it was in the capacity of a spiritual leader, ritual leader, board president, lay leader or educator, women stepped into key roles and in some cases, served as the backbone of their synagogues, ensuring that communal tefillah (prayer) remained a mainstay of Orthodox life. The value added by having women serve as role models in Orthodox synagogues is incalculable. The positive ripple effects will benefit community members, both young and old for generations to come.
On Sukkot, there is a custom to invite Ushpizin and Ushpizot (guests), into our sukkot. Traditionally, these “guests” are biblical characters. Out of this custom has grown a modern practice to spiritually welcome other key admirable figures whose presence we want at our meals. Below, please find a list of notable women whose contributions to synagogue life have improved Orthodox communities. We encourage you to welcome these role models into your sukkot and hope that other Orthodox synagogues will follow these positive examples.
While this is certainly not an exhaustive list, these women were nominated by community members, and have each demonstrated strong leadership, made positive change, and created lasting impact through their work. We take this opportunity to honor, celebrate, and thank them for all they do.
Dr. Hila Ben Eliyahu
When the pandemic broke out and synagogues were forced to shutter their doors, Dr. Hila Ben-Eliyahu and her husband Eyal created a backyard minyan in their hometown Kfar Adumim. It serviced one quarter of the main synagogue’s population of 500 and reflected the pluralistic values of the larger community. As Dr. Ben-Eilyahu and her husband opened their backyard minyan, another neighbor opened a street minyan. Hila was concerned that neighbors might feel uncomfortable walking out of their homes during services. Instead, they joined backyard spaces to respect their neighbors’ privacy.
The joint yards were divided into a men’s, women’s and a family section. This allowed mothers to sit with their unvaccinated children (who were otherwise unable to attend) and pray with a minyan. Women prepared divrei Torah, and following services men and women studied at shiurim together. On Simchat Torah, hakafot were danced in family units. Over 150 attended High Holidays and Yom Haatzmaut, and a regular Shabbat usually drew 90-100 souls to this unique and sensitive backyard minyan.
Rabbanit Dr. Adena Berkowitz
Rabbanit Berkowitz spent hours each week teaching Zoom shiurim that went beyond Jewish intellectual and spiritual growth. For example, her Nosh and Drash women’s shiur, which meets at The Jewish Center in NY, became a way for women from NY, NJ, as well as across the U.S. from locations such as Atlantic City, the Berkshires, Brookline, El Paso, Fire Island, the Hamptons, Miami Beach, LA, to Jerusalem to feel a sense of community; often interacting with people they actually never met in person!
While hunkered down at home, it became a way for so many to be interconnected, overcoming feelings of isolation, and increasing their Torah knowledge. It led Rabbanit Berkowitz and participants to help those needing donations of food, pickup and delivery of food, medicine, as well as pre-Shabbat telephone check-ins to make sure everyone was ok.
That caring outreach will continue even when the pandemic fades.
Rabbanit Avital Engelberg
Rabbanit Avital Engelberg, a JOFA Devorah Scholar, served as Director of Spiritual Engagement at Congregation Beth Sholom in Providence, RI; and is Ramit (rabbi and educator) at Midreshet Ein HaNatziv, Israel. During her time at the congregation, Rabbanit Engelberg continued to run robust remote educational programming from her home in Israel.
Prior to the pandemic Rabbanit Engelberg innovated programs in the synagogue such as a joint sephardic and ashkenazi selichot services, women led-megillah reading and women tefillah services. She trained gabbayot who have since formally joined the ritual committee.
Also thanks to Rabbanit Engelberg’s work in the community, bat mitzvah celebrations have become elevated and there is a new cadre of women who can read from the Torah and this coming year as men will read from the Torah on Simchat Torah, so too will women.
Rabbanit Carmit Feintuch
When the pandemic broke, Jerusalem-based Rabbanit Carmit Feintuch and her husband Rabbi Yonatan (Tani) Feintuch created a virtual and then in-person meeting space for those in need of community. It soon became the Ilana de-Chayei (Tree of Life) synagogue where all types of life cycle events were celebrated including bnai mitzvah, upsherin haircuts and a regular service for children . Rabbanit Carmit served as Rosh Kehillah and delivered drashot, shiurim, Zoom lessons, havdalot, and other communal rituals.
The community under Rabbanit Carmit’s leadership dedicated itself to helping and including people who were sick or in isolation. After services on Rosh Hashana, community members went around the neighborhood to recite parts of the tefilla and blow shofar under the windows of people confined to their homes.
The entire year was dedicated to helping others, doing all they could, whether outside or on Zoom, to have activities to help people in their kehillah to feel a part of the community
Maharat Ruth Friedman is clergy at Ohev Sholom in Washington, DC. She has been a true leader in our Orthodox synagogue as well as to other Jews in our community throughout the pandemic.
When COVID hit she listened to people’s needs and began working to arrange kosher food deliveries to both support local kosher businesses and to assist people who had fewer hours in the day for things like cooking.
Maharat Friedman conducted remote classes, and reached out to high risk families to ensure they had extra support and were connected to the community. She immediately sprang into action to ensure that our mikvah operated according to the highest hygienic standards. She really worked day and night to serve her congregation and beyond.
Her synagogue community is grateful for her leadership, thoughtfulness and chessed. Likewise, Maharat Friedman has earned the admiration from other synagogues communities and their leadership.
Rabbanit Dasi Fruchter
Rabbanit Dasi Fruchter is the founder and spiritual leader of the South Philadelphia Shtiebel. She is also one of JOFA's Devorah Scholars.
Rabbanit Fruchter is driven by relationship-based community building, facilitating meaningful ritual, and harnessing the power of spiritual community to make the world a better place. Under her leadership (and despite opening just prior to the outbreak of the pandemic), the South Philadelphia Shtiebel has quickly established itself as a synagogue and community center.
Throughout the pandemic, Rabbanit Fruchter kept her community members connected, engaged and spiritually energized with qualitative programming and learning and prayer opportunities. As a Halachic Advisor for Niddah and Women's Health she also weighed in regularly on health and safety issues regarding mikvah.
Rabbanit Jennifer Geretz
This past spring Rabbanit Jennifer Kotzker Geretz joined the spiritual leadership team at Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, NJ as a Devorah Scholar. Rabbanit Geretz, in consultation with Rabbi Helfgot, lay leaders, and members, is developing and leading educational and other programs on over the holidays, on Shabbat and during the week. Passionate about Jewish education, she is also working to provide vision and strategy for programming infrastructure for adults and children. She is also providing counseling and pastoral support for members throughout the lifecycle.
Netivot Shalom has long been at the forefront of inclusion of women’s participation in leadership and ritual roles. With services and programming resuming with regularity, Rabbanit Geretz’s presence will continue to attract new members to Netivot Shalom allowing it to grow and flourish. The positive changes Rabbanit Geretz will make at the synagogue will be everlasting.
Robin Gofine assumed leadership as President of Shaarei Shomayim synagogue in Toronto during May, 2020, just at the height of the pandemic. In collaboration with clergy and the synagogue's professional staff, she oversees the daily activities of the shul, its intermittent re-openings throughout the pandemic, and has engaged community members virtually.
Under her leadership, the synagogue adhered to COVID safety protocols. Even when provincial guidelines stipulated that houses of worship were limited to 10 people at a time, Ms. Gofine ensured the continued participation of women in shul life by holding women's tefillah and learning group. On her executive team and board, Ms. Gofine has ensured equal representation of women. She has also created innovative and engaging programming for the community, such as the Storytelling Project. Members of younger generations interview members of older generations about their lives or life's work. She has made sure to include and celebrate women in such programming.
Several years go Ms. Gofine led a process at the synagogue to amend the constitution to enable women to serve as senior officers. This change opened the door to women to serve as president and she is now the third woman to serve in this role. This has resulted in new leadership opportunities for women and opened a broader talent pool to draw from within our community.
Ms. Gofine is a humble, dedicated, and strong leader who makes progress through doing, quietly.
As president during the past four years, Ann Goldhirsch lost no time in leading Congregation Ramath Orah in New York City in developing protocols in alignment with CDC guidelines, and, more importantly, in communicating with the congregants in a timely, clear, and professional manner. She worked tirelessly to develop high holiday plans for both indoor and outdoor services - renting a truck to store chairs and pitch tents in the middle of a Manhattan street! - while devising the accompanying security needs, and planning for registration and ticketing in multiple socially distanced locations.
Ms. Goldhirisch co-chaired the synagogue's annual dinner over zoom in 2020, raising over $30,000 for the center while delivering wine to VIP donors. When it was finally possible to start a “kiddush to go” program once in-person tefillah resumed, she determined the most sensible and fun way to implement it.
Above all, Ms. Goldhirsch is even-keeled, quick to laugh, smart, sensible, and most importantly, kind to everyone involved.
According to the synagogue's rabbi, Naima Hirsch basically kept The Beis of Washington Heights, NY going during the pandemic. She used her background in theater and stage managing to choreograph the space to make it covid-safe - making signs, mapping out seat location, and telling people where to go when services were held in an outdoor park. She started an Elul podcast with the rabbi to launch community conversations around G!d. Ms. Hirsch worked with the local police precinct to help The Beis get permission to hold services in the street for Rosh Hashana. She served as gabbait and held the space on the women's side of the mechitza. She played the role of covid-police to ensure compliance among our community. And, Ms. Hirsch thought of every Jewish holiday and ritual weeks before it came up to make sure we had a plan to make it happen - meaningfully and safely
Dr. Leora Horn
From day one of the pandemic Dr. Horn served as a positive and trusted force at Congregation Sherith Israel in Nashville, TN, both for her synagogue community as well as the community day school and beyond. She educated the community on the dangers of COVID, while at the same time, facilitating Shul services in whatever way was possible.
Dr. Horn's patience and understanding with all parties was unparalleled and even her 'psak refuah' reflected an innate understanding of where people were at, the needs of the community, including the most vulnerable, the strong desire to bring people together, and to balance various factions within the community.
Talia Hurwich, co-chair and Gabbai of Darkhei Noam in New York has acted as a central leader to help the Darkhei Noam community survive the pandemic.
As women’s davening coordinator early in the pandemic, Ms. Hurwich implemented virtual Kabbalat Shabbat and a daily virtual Shacharit minyan and created a handbook explaining the halakhic rationale and practices of these services. She spearheaded the development of online shiurim and created a Pesach 2020 Seder companion — a collection of stories and sermons from a variety of community members, designed for individuals facing solitary sedarim. Her activities led to her becoming one of DN's co-Chairs, and Ms. Hurwich lead the community back to shul from the virtual space. She and her co-Chair innovated the addition of outdoor Musaf and Kiddush on Shabbat particularly for those uncomfortable with indoor Shacharit. Throughout the process, she has balanced children’s programming, safety while davening in public spaces, the community’s physical and mental health, and its spiritual needs.
Rabbanit Bracha Jaffe
Rabbanit Bracha created warm, online spaces that filled spiritual and emotional voids during the pandemic outbreak. Most of them have become “Covid-Keepers” at HIR - the Bayit in Riverdale, NY where she serves as Associate Rabba.
The online setting opened spaces for a woman to lead in an Orthodox non-minyan setting. Rabbanit Bracha now leads weekday tefillah where people across the U.S. gather to pray and support each other. Her musical initiatives soothe and lift people’s souls: Thursday night Niggun Circle, Musical Hallel, communal Erev Shirah on Yom Yerushalayim.
Rabbanit Bracha hosted online storytelling hours for children and a post-Yom Kippur communal break-fast. HIR’s annual "Nametag Shabbat" shifted to an online event with fun activities, and breakout rooms where people mingled. Other shuls heard about it and reached out for ideas!She creates a weekly "Shabbat @ Home" Tefillah guide, s pecial Tefillah and Ritual Guides for each chag, and monitors popular WhatsApp groups for Pesach prep and Halakhic questions.
Rabbanit Bracha feels comfortable and welcoming on Zoom, and was fondly referred to by Rabba Sara Hurwitz as "The Zoom Rabbi".
Shayne Green Kessler
Shayne Green Kessler began her tenure as president of the board of directors of the Young Israel of West Hartford in June of 2020. Ms. Green Kessler was instrumental in the planning of the Chagim for the fall of 2020 which resulted in a beautiful outdoor experience for our entire community. There were multiple minyanim and an abbreviated service to keep everyone comfortable. The programming for both adults and kids continued throughout with minimal interruption.
Dr. Zoë Lang
Dr. Zoë Lang has previously served as the gabbait for the Orthodox Minyan at Harvard Hillel.
Since the pandemic began, the minyan has not had a dedicated space in which to meet. A small committee of community leaders adapted to this situation by planning outdoor services while undertaking COVID-19 precautions to ensure that participants stayed safe. Dr. Lang was part of the planning committee--which included weekly Shabbat services and Yamim Tovim--in part to ensure that the voices of the women in the community would be heard. One of her roles was to serve as a liaison when other women inquired about participation, such as questions about saying kaddish or bringing children to services. She also ensured that women had opportunities to be actively involved by coordinating women’s readings for Simchat Torah, Megillat Esther, Megillat Rut, and Eicha.
Donna Moskowitz is the first female president of Congregation Sons of Israel in Cherry Hill, NJ. She became president of the synagogue at the height of the pandemic.Besides having to construct pandemic policies for the shul in a good and safe way, Ms. Moskowitz had to deal with a transitional leadership. Ms. Moskowitz took the helm and worked with everyone to help guide them through this difficult time, which included interviewing rabbinical candidates and working with the rabbi selection committee to choose a rabbi that would best serve the institution as a Modern Orthodox synagogue. She also is a champion for having women speakers come to the shul and to have women speak and give announcements from the bimah.Ms. Moskowitz had also been at the helm of the security committee since it became apparent that greater security was needed. She implemented policies and helped the synagogue obtain grants so that the building would have the proper security.
Rabbi Dina Najman
Rabbi Najman is the senior Rabbi of the Kehilah of Riverdale. From the start of the pandemic Rabbi Najman led with courage. In a last-minute decision, Rabbi Najman, along with the board canceled in person Megilah reading on Purim 2020. Instead, they made sure that the readers had a klaf and fulfilled the obligation of kriyat megilah for more than 400 people on Zoom. Following Rav Melamed’s psak, evening Zoom services included kaddish yatom and kaddish drabbanan which enabled many to say kaddish during their year of mourning and as a way to honor a yahrzeit.
Rabbi Najman facilitated pre Pesach and Pre Shavuot learning on zoom. When outside davening became an option in June 2020, she modeled holding meaningful outdoor abridged prayer services.
Throughout Rabbi Najman provided pastoral guidance and helped those who needed money. Her leadership strengthened our community, as well as the people from across the country and around the world who joined our online community.
Debra Passner is the president of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, NJ. She valiantly led the congregation through COVID, reinventing every service and program to lead the community through these unprecedented times. She worked hand-in-hand with the rabbi to ensure that our synagogue was supporting members and maximizing its programming through COVID. Ms. Passner also helped the synagogue’s leadership navigate various challenges including the tempest with the RCBC over our hiring a Maharat intern.
During the pandemic she and and Rabbi Helfgot worked hand in hand to maintain the safety of the kehillah, plan a smart and responsible reopening plan including coordinating the enormous amount of logistics involved in setting up five large outside minyanim for the Yamim Noraim.
The synagogue taken the opportunity to expand women's roles even more in the shabbat tefillah, have hired a Devorah Scholar and continue to think about expanding the shul programming. Ms. Passner led the effort to get us back to the point where the synagogue community is almost back to where they were before the pandemic.
In early 2021 the vaccine for Covid19 became available to those who were eligible. It became quickly apparent that attaining appointments was going to be a challenge -- and as such, a barrier to return to normal routines, including synagogue attendance. Enter Gail Propp. Propp, a member of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York, NY stepped into action.
Ms. Propp is a tremendous leader in the community and distinguished herself throughout the pandemic in helping to secure over 1,000 vaccination appointments for the elderly, Holocaust survivors and community members. Relying on her technology skills, she literally worked around the clock finding and arranging for these appointments. She, also, persuaded the Department of Health to actually give her appointment slots for her agency, Chesed Community Outreach. Additionally, when needed, she helped arrange for transportation to the appointments and followed up to make sure 2nd dose appointments were kept. She is a dedicated, selfless, miracle worker!
Ruthie Braffman Shulman
Ruthie Braffman Shulman is one of the JOFA Devorah Scholars. For much of the pandemic she served as the Director of Education and Engagement and halachic consultant at United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston. Her role there as a member of the leadership team was multi-faceted; she led educational programming for community members, online webinars on current events and was able to advise community members on halachic matters.
Like so many clergy teams during the pandemic, Braffman Shulman was central to creative programming as a way to stay engaged, including a “Chanukah Crawl” where community members strolled the neighborhood, admiring neighbors’ Chanukah lights. In February of 2021, Houston was hit with a snow storm that knocked out power and cell towers for days. Braffman Shulman was able to show up for those in need. Additionally, the synagogue Braffman Shulman helped lead was also the site of an impromptu vaccination distribution center.
Ms. Slutsky is a community leader and a sought-after b'nai mitzvah tutor at Anshe Sholom Bnai Israel in Chicago. She tutors both girls and boys in their preparation. She also coordinated the only in-person pandemic bat mitzvah along with the synagogue's Rabbanit. Ms. Slutsky organized the synagogue's Women's Shavuot Celebration. For the event, she taught her 13-year-old daughter to read Sefer Ruth for the first time.
Ms. Slutsky also led a Zoom class on Mindfulness for children and families as part of a synagogue initiative on mental health. Finally, she served as a Rosh Mishpacha for the synagogue's community-building initiative, Project Mishpacha. In this role she planned and executed several virtual and in-person social gatherings for her Mishpacha (a cross-demographic group), and also shared her expertise with the other Mishpacha groups.
Maharat Victoria Sutton
During the pandemic, Director of Education and Community Engagement Maharat Victoria Sutton of Congregation Beth Israel, Berkeley went out of her way to help people feel included during both s'machot and tragedies. She reached out to those in need and organized endless meals, tefila and learning opportunities, and spaces for connection for both women and men. She continued to teach her usual classes online, sometimes even from a car. Maharat Sutton made sure to help plan programming for women to keep our women's community and bat mitzvah celebrations vibrant. She was a regular and welcoming presence in our outdoor tefila space, facilitated our scholars-in-residence program, and made connections with those in need for Shabbat and Jewish holidays once it was safe to do so.Her constancy, manifested with grace, respect and love, has been a comfort to so many! She is always and continues to be a good listener and wise teacher, and displays a kind and welcoming manner towards people. Maharat Sutton's positivity, warmth, compassion, humor, and acumen as a Torah teacher make her a true rockstar for our Kehila Kedosha (holy congregation) here in Berkeley!
Dr. Deborah Weissman
Dr. Deborah Weissman is a founding member of Kehilat Yedidya in Jerusalem and was highly instrumental in setting its core values of equality for women. She was the first woman to be president of an Orthodox synagogue in Israel in the early 1990's.
During the lockdown, Dr. Weissman continued her service as an active member of the halakha and minhag committee and the education committee, meeting the needs of its members throughout the pandemic. She also served on several ad hoc committees created during this time such as the 40th anniversary celebration of Yedidya, the creation of a Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration, and the commemoration of Tisha B’Av. She created an entire virtual program for Elul and Tishrei, 2020.
Dr. Weissman is a single woman who lives alone and her work with Yedidya has been an important part of sustaining her mental and physical health. She feels grateful for the opportunity to extend Yedidya’s spiritual and intellectual activities to help others living in isolation during these trying times.
Leah Portnoy Worenklein
In 2016 Leah Portnoy Worenklein was approached by Rabbi Chaim Marder, spiritual leader of Hebrew Institute of White Plains to become a gabbai of the synagogue. She agreed, and became integral to all the decision-making including the planning of services, procedural decisions, the setup of the prayer space, and more. A guiding principle for Portnoy Worenklein and the synagogue’s leadership is that it is equally important for the men to be aware of and considerate of women’s participation as is the other way around.
From the start of the pandemic, Portnoy Worenklein weighed in on every aspect of synagogue life including seating plans, mechitzas and deciding which prayers would be recited. When the state guidelines dictated that gatherings could include no more than 10 people, Portnoy Worenklein and the leadership team opted to not hold services until both men and women could attend. Together with the other gabbais Portnoy Worenklein strives to create a prayer space that is comfortable, spiritual, and empowering for all.