Montreal Orthodox shul hires first female clergy

Rachel Kohl Finegold

MONTREAL — A woman will soon join the clergy of the Orthodox-practising Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, which has become the first synagogue to announce that it’s hiring a graduate from the inaugural class of a new yeshiva that ordains women.

Rachel Kohl Finegold, 32, who presently serves a Chicago synagogue, will become director of education and spiritual enrichment at the synagogue effective Aug. 1. Among her duties will be speaking “periodically” from the pulpit, leading Torah text classes and visiting the sick and elderly, as well as developing programs for youth and young families.

Finegold is one of three women slated to graduate in June from Yeshivat Maharat in the Bronx, N.Y., which was founded in 2009 as the first institution to train Orthodox women as spiritual leaders and halachic authorities. Its founder, Rabbi Avi Weiss, is a leading figure in modern Orthdoxy and is also the founder and president of the modern Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School.

“Rachel’s appointment breaks exciting new ground for our congregation,” Shaar Hashomayim’s Rabbi Adam Scheier and president Joseph Paperman said in a newsletter to congregants. “It is consistent with the evolution of modern Orthodoxy.”

Yeshivat Maharat’s four-year program includes Torah and Talmud study, halachic decision-making, pastoral counseling, and training as poskot (legal arbiters) for the community.

Maharat, which is the title Finegold will use, is a Hebrew acronym for “manhigah hilchatit ruchanit Toranit,” which means a teacher or leader of Jewish law and spirituality. Although the honorific “Rabba” has been proposed for the graduates, she will not be known that way.

Finegold is coming to Montreal with her husband, Rabbi Avi Finegold, who is from here, and their two young daughters (a third child is expected any day). She will work closely with Rabbi Scheier, whose wife, Abby Brown Scheier, is one of the other two soon-to-be Maharat graduates.

Finegold’s position has been newly created for her. She will be part of a clerical team that also includes Cantor  Gideon Zelermyer and ritual director Rabbi David Wolfson.

The position of associate rabbi, which was held by Rabbi Yonah Berman, until his departure last summer, won’t be filled at this time, Rabbi Scheier said.

For the past six years, Finegold has been education and ritual director of the Orthodox Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago, where she holds the Dr. Carol Fuchs Kaufman Rabbanit Chair.

In a telephone interview, Finegold downplayed any portrayal of her as a trailblazer.

“Nothing I’m doing is new [for Orthodox women], nothing is against Jewish law, yet the trappings are different, it looks different,” she said.

The role of Orthodox women has been slowly progressing since they were given the opportunity of serious Torah study in the 1970s, she said.

The Yeshivat Maharat program has afforded them the possibility of “taking the next logical step” – being leaders in a synagogue – she said.

Finegold said the precise details of her participation in regular services at Shaar Hashomayim have yet to be ironed out, but in Chicago, she delivers the Shabbat sermon about once a month.

She will not sit on the bimah, but rather in one of the front rows, as she does in Chicago.

“In Chicago, there was hesitation at first [about her appointment] – this is the Midwest, it’s very traditional. There were people who were nervous because it did not feel familiar, but I was really surprised how welcome I’ve felt… I’ve been told it’s refreshing to hear a woman’s voice.”

With ordination, Finegold said she expects the major difference in what she will be doing will be having the ability provide more answers to questions about Jewish law. Women especially will appreciate this, if they are uncomfortable asking a man, she added

Outreach to potential new members will be an important part of Finegold’s work at the Westmount congregation, which, with more than 1,400 families, is the largest in Montreal and the city’s oldest Ashkenazi congregation.

Before entering Yeshivat Maharat, Finegold, a New York native, received a BA in religion from Boston University and completed the Drisha Institute Scholars Program in New York, an intensive graduate-level program in Judaic studies.

Finegold completed her internship at Ohev Shalom – the National Synagogue in Washington, D.C.

At the Chicago shul, she created weekly Shabbat tfillah groups for every age group and others activities that have attracted young families in particular.

She was recently recognized as one of the Chicago Jewish community’s outstanding “36 Under 36” young leaders by the Jewish United Fund.

She is a member of the editorial board of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance Journal.

Although not officially an affiliate of the Orthodox movement, Shaar Hashomayim, which years ago was part of the Conservative United Synagogue, does follow modern Orthodoxy.

The shul is fully supportive of the movement to expand women’s leadership in Orthodox congregations, Rabbi Scheier said.

The congregation was looking to hire a woman to fill the vacancy in its clergy, and it invited Finegold to apply, on Rabbi Scheier’s suggestion. The board agreed with him that she is an “extraordinary” person who has “swept us off our feet.”

“This has been part of an ongoing conversation at the Shaar: how to maximize the role of women within the bounds of Halachah. This is a major step… The Shaar is not officially affiliated with any movement, but it does follow Orthodox law, practice and teaching,” Rabbi Scheier said.

Finegold, Rabbi Scheier pointed out, is “deeply Orthodox,” but he said the role of female members won’t necessarily change with the addition of a female cleric.

Women can now speak from the pulpit and carry the Torah before the general congregation, and, at women’s services, read from the Torah, he said. They can also lead certain prayers, such as those for the State of Israel and the government of Canada, and deliver benedictions at Shabbat morning services, he added.

Rabbi Scheier has been at Shaar Hashomayim since 2004, after graduating from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

His wife, who two months ago gave birth to the couple’s fourth child, will resume private teaching after her June graduation, but will not be an employee of the synagogue, Rabbi Scheier said.