Women's History Month

First Orthodox woman Rabbi breaks through barriers for future leaders

Sara Hurwitz created a program to ordain orthodox women after she became the first woman Orthodox Rabbi in 2009.

First Orthodox woman Rabbi breaks through barriers for future leaders
Scripps News

When Sara Hurwitz was a teenager, she took a test to see what kind of career she'd be best suited for. It told her she should become a member of the clergy. Her family laughed. 

 "What was a young Orthodox woman going to do with that? There was no obvious opportunity for women to pursue work as a rabbi or clergy," Hurwitz said. 

Orthodox Judaism, the traditional sect of the religion, separates men and women at synagogue and doesn't traditionally see women even step on the bimah — or stage — let alone leading a service from it. 

"Because it was a community I chose, I took the good with the bad," Hurwitz continued. "And at the same time, I always had this, like, bubbling up in my belly of the unfairness, of some of the differences between what men and women were allowed."

As a young adult, she began working in the synagogue as an intern with no real direction. 

Eventually, she and Rabbi Avi Weiss began brainstorming what a more concrete future could look like for her. They decided to attempt the path to ordination — one that no woman had ever fully achieved. 

She embarked on a years long journey, making sure her credentials were in line with Jewish law and Orthodoxy, just like a man training for the same goal. The reform, conservative and reconstructionist movements of Judaism have ordained women since the 1970s. 

"I wanted to broaden the walls, so to speak, and to create space for Orthodox women to lead and serve within the context of the Orthodox community," Hurwitz said.

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She was ordained as the first female Orthodox Rabbi in 2009 with the support of Rabbi Weiss and many others. But outside the halls of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, it wasn't always a welcome reception. 

"I hate being in the spotlight. I hated the idea that there was controversy surrounding what I was doing, especially because it felt so religious and, and so right," Hurwitz said. "I remember sitting in my office in early 2010 and the phone rang and I picked it up and the person on the other end said, 'You're destroying the Orthodox community,' and hung up and I was devastated. I didn't want to be the person who was breaking something apart when I actually wanted to build."

Hurwitz says the time was lonely, but the support from her family and from Rabbi Weiss soothed that isolation. 

"Rabbi Weiss is, really, the true hero in this story," Hurwitz said. "What he did was truly courageous. And he understood and knew that there would be push back."

The Rabbinical Council of America passed a resolution in 2015 against ordaining and employing Orthodox female Rabbis. Weiss was one of the rabbis who resigned in protest. 

While Hurwitz was the first, she knew her true fulfillment would come from making sure she wasn't the only

"My mission is creating leaders," Hurwitz said. "I want to put out as many Orthodox women out into the community to serve. And they are going to serve all in their own way."

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She created Maharat, a program to ordain Orthodox women, beginning with just three students in 2009. Now 60 women have graduated and the program has another 60 coming through. 

"I think with each each year that passes, we're contributing to untying the knots just a little bit more," Hurwitz said. "We're a rabbinical school, but we're interested in creating 21st century rabbis."

Students study for years, going through traditional texts, learning leadership skills and even from psychologists who help the women better connect with congregants going through difficult times. 

"It's a responsibility, because every time a woman goes out into a new community, there's a little bit of push back and a little bit of controversy. And it takes time for people to become it used to the idea of seeing women lead in this way," Hurwitz shared. "But it's hard to send or to see my students go out and at least initially struggle."

In less than 15 years, Rabba Hurwitz has effectively transformed Orthodox Judaism into a more equal space. 

"This is a career path that young women can now think about from birth, to when they're beginning to think about their careers," she said. "It's now baked in to what's possible for young orthodox women."

Now, a life of Torah knows no bounds for women just like her.