MONTREAL — “Maha-What? Maharat!”
The title of Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold’s presentation at the Le Mood conference last November reflected how unfamiliar her groundbreaking role is to Jewish Montrealers.
Few realize that the title denotes that she is among the first women ordained as clergy within the Orthodox movement. Kohl Finegold was one of three in the inaugural graduating class last June of Yeshivat Maharat in the Bronx, N.Y.
In August, Kohl Finegold became director of education and spiritual enrichment at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, Montreal’s largest synagogue, which dates back to 1846.
“Maharat” is a Hebrew acronym that translates as female leader in Torah, spirituality and religious law.
Kohl Finegold, 33, and her classmates completed a rigorous four-year program, with almost exactly the same studies as for the rabbinate, that qualifies them to do almost everything a rabbi can – as long as its within the Orthodox understanding of Halachah, or Jewish law.
The graduates are certified “spiritual leaders and decisors of Jewish law,” that is, competent to determine halachic issues, teach Torah in public, to officiate at life-cycle events, and provide spiritual and pastoral counselling.
The program has been controversial since its creation by activist Rabbi Avi Weiss. In May, the Rabbinical Council of America, which represents more than 1,000 Orthodox rabbis in 14 countries, denounced the impending ordination of women as “a violation of mesorah [tradition]… that contradicts the norms of our community.”
Far from feeling defensive, Kohl Finegold responds that she is encouraged, because the statement also expresses support like never before for “advanced women’s learning” and “halachically and communally appropriate professional opportunities” for learned women.
At Shaar Hashomayim, Kohl Finegold is a member of the clergy team, along with Rabbi Adam Scheier, Cantor Gideon Zelermyer and ritual director Rabbi David Woolfson.
Kohl Finegold, who has a warm, down-to-earth personality, downplays her trailblazing role, insisting that whatever she does at Shaar Hashomayim – or did at the Chicago synagogue where she worked before her ordination – has been done by women before and is not really a break with tradition, except that her qualifications and duties are formally recognized.
“I’m not really changing anything. It just looks different,” she said in an interview. “There may have been skeptics at the beginning, but people see that I am deeply Orthodox… and not trying to make a statement or waves or be the token woman.”
She grew up in “a typical 1980s Orthodox Brooklyn family,” but didn’t think about a career as a Jewish leader until well after graduating from Boston University with a major in religion.
Since childhood she felt herself to be “a natural teacher, but I didn’t want to be in a classroom, I wanted something more creative.”
Three years at the Drisha Institute in New York, taking advanced Jewish and communal leadership studies, led to her to being hired as education and ritual director at Chicago’s Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation.
Kohl Finegold was quite content with that role when she was headhunted, as it were, by Maharat Sara Hurwitz, dean of Yeshivat Maharat, and the very first woman it ordained in 2009. Kohl Finegold was one of only five women occupying such a high level of leadership at a U.S. Orthodox synagogue at the time.
Speaking in her comfortable office at Shaar Hashomayim, where toys and children’s games are on the shelves beneath holy texts, Kohl Finegold said she was attracted to the possibility of being ordained because “it’s hard to do the job without official credentials or title. People don’t know what to call you or what questions they can ask you…
“Being a maharat allows me to do the job more effectively. It clarifies my role.”
She came to think of her education at Yeshivat Maharat as “training for a job I already had.”
Kohl Finegold feels fully embraced by the membership of Shaar Hashomayim, a congregation steeped in tradition, even formality, that follows Orthodox practice but is not officially affiliated with the movement.
Most of her time is spent in education, overseeing the synagogue’s supplemental schools, and in developing programming for youth and young families – vital to rejuvenating this congregation of about 1,500 members.
Kohl Finegold said she never considered studying for the rabbinate of any of the non-Orthodox streams. “In many ways, it would have been a lot easier, but it’s just not who I am. It’s not the community I wished to serve,” she said.
She does not foresee or hope for the day when women can be full-fledged rabbis within Orthodoxy.
“Men and women are different… Women can offer a voice of their own in spiritual leadership… My role is distinctly feminine. I bring a women’s perspective,” she said, but is perfectly fine with those Orthodox Jews who do not want a woman in that role.
“It’s not my goal to be called ‘rabbi’. Being a maharat signifies I am one of the clergy, but within the boundaries of Halachah. For me, that is the pinnacle.”
At the Shaar, Finegold gives sermons from the pulpit, but does not lead services, except to recite the prayers for the governments of Canada and Israel. She can marry a couple – although she has not been called upon to do so thus far – but cannot sign the ketubah.
She does not sit on the bimah with her male colleagues, but rather in the front row of one of the women’s sections on either side behind the low-rise mechitzah. She can stand on the bimah to speak when no prayers are in progress.
She does not wear a kippah or tallit at services. At all times, she wears a hat or scarf and a skirt. Covering her head is her choice, something she feels she must do as a married Orthodox woman, and not a requirement of a maharat.
She and her husband, native Montrealer Avi Finegold, have three daughters aged 4, 2 and eight months. A rabbi, Finegold was recently named executive director of the Montreal Board of Rabbis.
Kohl Finegold is not a member of that inter-denominational organization, and is not sure if she would meet its membership criteria.
She hasn’t had much time to form associations outside the Shaar Hashomayim yet, but is pleased that she was asked to speak to the Kollel Torah MiTzion to senior high school girls.
“Basically, we are trying to find a way to make women feel more connected to Judaism, to be more active in ritual, while remaining within Jewish law,” she said.
Change starts with the young and in small steps for Kohl Finegold. One of her innovations is extending to girls Shaar Hashomayim’s tradition of appointing “bimah boys,” post bar-mitzvah teens who help out at services.