Before Sara Hurwitz went to college, her parents had her take a vocational test to see what career she was destined for. When the answer came back "clergy," the Orthodox girl had a good laugh with her family. Being a rabbi simply wasn’t an option.
That’s why finding the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale was truly a blessing. With the open Orthodox congregation, and an innovative leadership in the community, Hurwitz, 32, celebrated her conferral ceremony in March, marking the end of her formal religious studies and the beginning of her new position in the synagogue, with a new title, Maharat.
"There’s no doubt that rabbi is the ideal title," Maharat Hurwitz says. "My dream is to walk into a doctor’s office, and fill in
an occupation that explains what I do." She tells people that the title really means rabbi, an acronym for Manhiga Hilchatit, Ruchanit, Toranit — leader in halachic, spiritual, pastoral counseling and teaching Torah.
Five years ago, Maharat Hurwitz and HIR’s Rabbi Avi Weiss began discussing formalizing her role from her previous position as congregational intern, which had eased the community into the idea of having a female presence in the shul on Shabbat mornings. They supplemented her studies at Drisha with havrutah learning, and all the exams taken by members of the Orthodox rabbinate.
Her role as female religious authority, something she never could have dreamed of growing up in politically charged 1980s South Africa, fills a void in the synagogue.
"On Shabbat specifically, tradition is very male-oriented rituals by men and for men, and women feel detached," she says. "I make women feel they aren’t just spectators. When the men storm the bima for a simcha, I can dance, sing and celebrate with the mother at a bar mitzvah, or with the bride." She can also lend her support as women say Kaddish, and her ear when they need a religious authority for general guidance or more personal issues regarding marriage and family purity laws.
"I hope there are lots of other Maharats soon," she said. "I want girls to know this is a career path that is possible to achieve." She’s not looking to uproot the traditions, just find herself a place within them. "It’s exciting to push the envelope from within."
Favorite food: Boeroworst and pup, a classic South African delicacy, a meat similar to a hot dog and millet.
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