Two women to be ordained as Orthodox rabbis this weekend will become the world's first Jewish “rabbas,” the female form of “rabbi.” Until now, the only woman who held the title was Sara Hurwitz of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale’s synagogue in New York's borough of the Bronx, according to Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper.
Rahel Berkovits and Meesh Hammer-Kossoy will be joined by six other women to be ordained as rabbis in New York’s Yeshivat Maharat on Sunday. The women were granted their Orthodox ordination in a private, coed program called a smicha. The title rabba is not formally recognized by the Chief Rabbinate or traditional rabbis’ organizations in the United States. But the women have received recognition in liberal religious communities, Haaretz reports.
“I didn’t think it would happen, didn’t dream it would happen," Berkovitz said in a short sermon she had prepared for the ordination ceremony at the Jerusalem Orthodox center Har’el. "It snuck up on me so quick.”
Berkovits is one of four newly minted Orthodox rabbis who were ordained this week by Rabbi Professor Daniel Sperber and Rabbi Herzl Hefter, the heads of the coed smicha program. Some within the liberal wing of the community reject the title of rabba because it is considered conservative or reformed, the other two main branches of Judaism besides Orthodox.
“We had a long discussion about it,” said Avital Engelberg, an Israeli woman who was ordained with Berkovits and Hammer-Kossoy. “After Rabbi Weiss ordained Rabba Sara Hurwitz, maharat was a compromise proposal. But the graduates felt it was no longer so frightening to come nearer to the real name, 'that which isn’t uttered.' Step by step our confidence is growing, due to the fact that more women are dealing with halakha and more Orthodox synagogues in the United States want women as part of their rabbinical staff."
Ordaining women to positions comparable to rabbi began a few years ago among religious communities in Israel and the U.S. Hurwitz, a member of the rabbinical faculty of the Riverdale synagogue and the only Orthodox rabba until the other women's ordination, was ordained in 2009.
Her mentor, Rabbi Avi Weiss, was slammed for ordaining her by rabbis’ organizations and the Chief Rabbinate in Israel. Those organizations threatened to stop recognizing his converts to Judaism. Weiss continued to ordain women, but gave the title “maharat,” which means Halakhic spiritual Torah leader.