Two and a half years ago, after serving on the board as vice president for two years, I was asked to consider running for president of Congregation Shaare Tefillah. Knowing that the idea of female shul leadership could create controversy and halachic concerns, I asked Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz his feelings on having a female president.
He took the time to explain the halachot of serara to me, starting with the Rambam’s ruling and continuing to poskim in modern times. Together we discussed ways to work within the confines of halacha that would allow me to continue to serve our shul. Ultimately, Rabbi Schiowitz gave a shiur on the topic to our entire membership and presented his ruling to our board of directors. Our decision was to allow for a co-presidency where the female president would choose a male to serve alongside her so that she was not unilaterally spending communal funds or serving as president.
Our board of directors drafted amendments to our constitution, which our membership approved, and I was elected as co-president in 2017. This is what worked for our shul, and I am so proud of how we handled this situation: with concern for halacha, with respect for our rabbi, and with his leadership and involvement in each part of the process.
This is what worked for our shul. Different rulings work for other shuls in town. There are shuls in Teaneck that won’t allow a female a position on their board higher than third vice president, and other shuls that allow a female to hold the position of president on her own. Your shul may choose not to hire a yoetzet halacha, but you live in a community that allows for others to choose to do so.
What makes Teaneck a warm and accepting Modern Orthodox community is the acceptance of diverse halachic rulings and practice. It maintains its identity as a large tent of Modern Orthodoxy with friendships and connections that are built between people of various levels of observance and shuls of different policies and demographics. You are friends with members of those congregations and your children are friends with their children and go to their shuls. Different shuls may feel comfortable with different types of speakers, programs or bylaws.
The acceptability of female clergy is a halachically complicated one that is still developing in our community and is not a clear-cut issue. We have other organizations in our community that decide who is Orthodox and who is not, that halachically and communally lay out the requirements for who belongs and who does not. In Bergen County, in areas that are halachically complex, each shul should be a place where its rav makes the decisions that are right for that community, and each family in Paramus, Fort Lee, Fair Lawn, Teaneck, Bergenfield, Englewood and Tenafly lives in the place, and attends the shul, that feels right for them.
Let us continue to be a kehillah that has vibrant shuls and schools, growth-oriented programs and guest speakers and shiurim across topics and age groups. Let us continue to do that with respect for diversity and without dictating to other people or other community leaders who does and does not belong.Karen Lew Orgen