Rabbanit Hadas “Dasi” Fruchter always wanted to work in the Jewish world.
She thought she would run a Jewish Federation or a Hillel. When she was young, she imagined marrying a rabbi so she could serve as a rebbetzin.
She never thought she would lead a synagogue one day as a clergy person.
Fruchter, who serves as assistant spiritual leader at Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah in Potomac, Md., began working there after getting ordained by Yeshivat Maharat in the Bronx, N.Y., the first Orthodox yeshiva to ordain women as clergy. With funding from Start-Up Shul and Hillel International’s Office of Innovation, she plans to move to the Greater Philadelphia area to start her own synagogue by the High Holidays of 2019.
The synagogue will look like a typical modern Orthodox congregation, Fruchter said, but with a woman instead of a man who holds the space, facilitates life-cycle events and creates programming.
“A lot of people from my New York days are moving [to Philadelphia] now; folks from D.C. are moving there now,” Fruchter said. “There’s a lot of rich Jewish life, and not many of my colleagues from Yeshivat Maharat are there. … I just saw that there was an opportunity to grow something beautiful, and I’m excited to see how that lands.”
Fruchter uses the title of “rabbanit.” She is one of the 26 Orthodox women ordained by Yeshivat Maharat who serve in rabbinical capacities at schools, hospitals, communal organizations and synagogues. Aside from “rabbanit,” these women call themselves “maharat,” “rabbah” or “rabbi,” depending on their preferences and those of their communities.
“[Rabbanit is] a title with a lot of historical significance, and it also means ‘rebbetzin,’ so it has dual use,” Fruchter said. “I find that people are more comfortable with that title, and I’m so happy to use whatever title makes people most comfortable with my work. That’s the goal here.”
Fruchter grew up in a modern Orthodox home in Silver Spring, Md. Both of her parents were involved in the community, and her grandfather was a rabbi. It was an Orthodoxy that was rich and inclusive, she said. She wanted to create more of those spaces, so she got master’s degrees in nonprofit management and Jewish studies from New York University.
Then she met Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the co-founder and president of Yeshivat Maharat, and a new world of possibility opened up.
“I was immediately transformed,” Fruchter said. “It was like everything I had been doing until that point had led me to this realization that this is the best combination of the way that I love to lead and inspire and build community and also the management aspect.”
She enrolled at Yeshivat Maharat. At the time, no one had graduated yet, so there was a risk. She had no idea where she would be able to work afterward.
“You did it because you believed that this was an important, untapped area of spiritual leadership in our community,” she said. “It’s half of our people.”
As the years went by in her four-year program, she saw other graduates head off to schools, Hillels or synagogues or go in the direction of chaplaincy and education.
As in other rabbinical schools, students at Yeshivat Maharat study Torah and Talmud. Jen Vegh, director of community engagement at Yeshivat Maharat, said their school has an especially strong pastoral counseling program.
Vegh said that halachically there are few things that a rabbi does that cannot be done by a woman. Women can teach, give divrei Torah and offer pastoral counseling. The only roles a rabbi has that women can’t halachically fulfill are serving as a witness or on a beit din, counting in a minyan and certain parts of prayer services.
“If a woman has a specific halachic question, she has to go to a man in congregations that are set in communities that don’t have a female clergy presence,” Vegh said. “[Having female clergy] offers a unique opportunity.”
After receiving her semikha two years ago, Fruchter went to work at Beth Sholom Congregation and Torah Talmud with Senior Rabbi Nissan Antine. The community was generally supportive, but since she was the first female clergy the synagogue had ever had, some had to adjust.
She said she and Antine have seen the value of having both male and female clergy, occupying different spaces in a very literal way.
“I’m on the women’s side [of the mechitza], and he’s on the men’s side,” Fruchter said. “There’s a real need for both clergy people. For me, watching the clarity of Orthodox institutions realizing that it’s important to have diverse leadership, both because of spatial concerns and because representative concerns, making sure that we’re thinking about the needs of the other side of the mechitza.”
Fruchter said women have served in leadership and scholarly positions in Orthodox Judaism for a long time. What is new now is the professionalization of the position. She pointed to a statement by the Orthodox Union, a 17-page paper of the role of women in synagogue life. Fruchter said that the paper, written by a panel of seven male rabbis, carves out a place for women by noting their ability to serve in the community as educators, in managerial and administrative positions and other roles.
However, the same paper says that women should not serve as clergy, with or without a title. The panel drew this conclusion from passages in the Talmud forbidding women from holding positions of formal communal authority and from being appointed as a shochet.
Like any male-dominated profession where women are just starting to break into the field, Fruchter said there are challenges. Sometimes, for example, people don’t refer to her by her title, while refering to her male counterparts by theirs.
“It’s all part of this process of figuring out, just putting a picture of what a Jewish spiritual leader looks like and shifting what that picture is,” she said. “Until that picture gets shifted, there are going to be barriers.”
Fruchter doesn’t yet know where her new synagogue will be. She has been having conversations — about 50 so far — with community leaders and people from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia to learn more about where the need is.
“What I’ve learned is that there is a hunger for more Orthodox life that is really modern and inclusive,” Fruchter said. “I’m also interested in other pieces that aren’t just about female leadership, like how to make a 21st-century shul vibrant and different and adapt it to the world that we have now.”
[email protected]; 215-832-0729