Leading By Example
12/13/11
Special To The Jewish Week
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She’s not a rabbi. She has no plans to become one. She sees herself more as a teacher than a trailblazer. And yet, Adena K. Berkowitz — who at 52 is an Orthodox mother of five, a scholar of bio-ethics, a lawyer and an instructor of liturgy, to name a few of her many roles — quietly added an intriguing new hat to her collection three years ago, one that places her among a small group of pioneers: spiritual leader of an Orthodox congregation. 

At Kol HaNeshamah, the congregation she founded three years ago with Cantor Ari Klein, she’s co-manager of a spiritual team. She teaches classes, and delivers speeches on Torah to the entire congregation, but never leaves the women’s section. Cantor Klein, who hails from the chasidic world, leads the prayers, along with other musically talented men. Together, Berkowitz and Klein discuss new directions for the community, which meets every other Friday night and recently launched a Hebrew school and classes for adults.

In a sense, Berkowitz’s role may not seem remarkable as she joins the slim but slowly growing ranks of Orthodox women who have held positions in synagogues for more than a decade. But in pushing the envelope ever so slightly, in expanding it just a tiny bit, Berkowitz may have fashioned a position that will be palatable to many sectors of the Orthodox Jewish world.

Most such models have not been embraced: Orthodox Jewish leaders largely reacted with dismissal or at least dismay in 2010, when Rabbi Avi Weiss appointed Sara Hurwitz as the world’s first “rabba” at the Orthodox Hebrew Institute of Riverdale; and with the exception of a handful of Modern Orthodox synagogues, most reject rabbinical roles of any sort for women.

Rabbinical ordination? Not for Berkowitz.  

“I’m happy with where I’m at,” says Berkowitz, flashing her characteristic friendly grin. “I have an intensive Jewish background and I’m trying to do something that focuses on teaching and learning rather than any kind of divisiveness.”

She adds, “I’m not there as a woman. I’m there as a speaker of Torah.” Berkowitz adopted the official title of scholar-in-residence, inspiring at least one member to refer to her as “SIR Adena,” though she jokes, “I haven’t been knighted.” 

“People are used to Rebbetzin Jungreis,” says Berkowitz, referring to Esther Jungreis, the writer and lecturer who founded the Orthodox outreach, Hineni Institute, and who is known for her oratorical and pedagogical skills. “This is a natural progression.”

Berkowitz cuts a striking figure on a recent rainy afternoon at Starbucks, where she arrives wearing a blazer emblazoned with gold trim, a baseball cap to cover her hair, and an earpiece plugged to one ear, on the chance that the caterer might call about her daughter’s upcoming bat mitzvah. On the dark upper level of the coffee shop, Berkowitz seems illuminated by an inner energy, her smile dazzling and frequent, especially when talk turns to Kol HaNeshamah.

In these unsettled times, she says, “People are looking for spiritual inspiration. … If they walk out of Kol HaNeshamah feeling inspired and welcomed, entering Shabbat with Torah and beautiful music, that’s a great start.” She hopes the community can “re-energize both the not-yet-affiliated and the affiliated,” both those who strayed from their observant upbringings, and those who never experienced the joy of Orthodox Judaism.

She tells of how, five or so years ago, while walking to synagogue in her Upper West Side neighborhood, she encountered a man from an illustrious Jewish family. It was Yom Kippur. The man was smoking, holding a paper cup of coffee.

“What more could be done to reach out to people today who are so disconnected that even Yom Kippur does not draw them in?” she asked herself. She arranged a meeting with Cantor Klein and his wife, Lauren. Klein “had great success in South Africa with reaching out to that type of population,” explains Berkowitz.

Berkowitz, who is the daughter of the late Rabbi William Berkowitz, and the wife of Zev Brenner, the Orthodox Jewish radio host, lists her profession simply as “Jewish community” on a mother’s networking site, MetroImma. In fact, her activities could go on for pages. She has been an active participant in the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. She co-edited a mini siddur, with Rivka Haut, and a Haggadah is in the works. Along with Haut, she has taught liturgy at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, and also a course on the history of women’s learning and leadership within the Orthodox movement.

She laughs. “It’s one thing to thing to talk about it. It’s another to live it…”

Elicia Brown’s column appears monthly. E-mail her at eliciabrown@hotmail.com.

Last Update:

12/13/2011 - 13:32

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