Last week, Moment published interviews with two graduates of Yeshivat Maharat, the first school to train Orthodox female clergy. Today, Moment speaks with fellow classmate Rori Picker Neiss. Neiss who is currently finishing her final year at Yeshivat Maharat was recently hired as the Director of Programming, Education, and Community Engagement at Bais Abraham Congregation, an Orthodox Synagogue in St Louis.
How did you become involved in Yeshivat Maharat?
I had been working in interfaith organizations and doing lot in terms of building bridges between religious communities. I realized that all the people I was working with were clergy members and thought about what that meant for me—when will I hit my glass ceiling? Also, as I was meeting other people from different faiths or communities, I realized I wanted the skills to delve deeply into my own texts.
Did you always see yourself taking on a pastoral role?
When I first started I was not sure if this was just going to be a conduit for me to go back into interfaith stuff, but I quickly discovered my passion in the Jewish community. It never occurred to me that taking a leadership position could be an option. Where I grew up, women didn’t have religious leadership positions. Of course there were female Judaic studies teachers, but most of their legitimacy came from being married to a rabbi.
What was your family’s reaction when you said you were enrolling?
I am not sure my family understood what I was getting myself into. My parents knew of Avi Weiss from all of the work he had done for Soviet Jewry in the 1980s and had respect for him. Along the way my parents have learned more about the program and they are very supportive. I have three brothers who learn in kollel in Jerusalem, Lakewood and the Five Towns. We mostly just don’t talk about it. It’s like a don’t ask don’t tell type of situation.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
I do consider myself to be a feminist. But I also recognize the word itself has become incredibly loaded. I don’t see myself as particularly “progressive” or “liberal” but recognize that in the broader community I’m considered that way because of what I’m doing. It’s a funny experience that other people see that my passion to study more and help people in their own Jewish life as too liberal or progressive and “less religious.”
Do you identify with the Open Orthodoxy movement espoused by Rabbi Avi Weiss?
I never grew up sub-qualifying my religious identity and it’s not something I feel the need to start doing now. I understand if it is a helpful term for people looking to be more inclusive on the role of women or issues surrounding homosexuality or other difficult conversations. But I don’t see the need to label myself in that way.
What do you think is the biggest issue facing Modern Orthodoxy today?
Modern Orthodoxy prides itself on being a movement that is firmly committed to halakha, but believes that halakha does not prevent us from living and functioning in the broader society. And I believe strongly that for the Torah and halakha to be true, it must be true in all times and all places—and not just when you remove yourself from society. But we have to be careful that in the push to bring halakha into society and society into halakha, we don’t give up the halakha or give up ourselves. Because if we just make the halakha fit whatever we want it to say, we risk losing it all.
What will be your role at Bais Abraham Congregation in St. Louis?
The official title is Director of Programing, Education and Community Engagement. In a certain sense the title is just a description of what a Maharat does. It’s hard to say I’m a Maharat because people don’t know what that means. But hopefully, through my work, people will learn to recognize the title “Maharat.”
What was the reaction of the community when you were hired in a pastoral capacity? I know there was discussion in the broader community.
Some people are excited, some people are confused, maybe some are a little resistant. Once I get there and get a chance to start doing the work, I hope people will understand more what this is all about. Things are always scarier and more confusing in the abstract.
You have two children—one a newborn. How do you balance your professional and home life?
It’s a challenge. I had both of my kids while in school, and have been the only on-site, full-time student with children while some other students have been connecting remotely or only attend part-time. My husband has been incredibly supportive both emotionally and mentally, and willing to take on a lot. There have been months where I missed a lot of bedtimes, and at one point I did need to step back and, with my husband, evaluate the path I was on. But the school is very supportive in that they recognize times when I say, “I can’t stay late tonight” or “I need to bring in my kids today.”
How do you think this will change once you become a full time clergy member in St. Louis?
I’m actually very optimistic. Now I live in Brooklyn and travel to the Upper West Side to study or teach. Living in the community itself might be easier because I don’t have to worry about the commute. Something my husband and I talk a lot about is how to balance our family life and work life. I might not always be able to have dinner with my kids but I’ll try to always be able to have breakfast. It may mean that we don’t have a typical schedule and typical practices, but that is okay. This is the life we want.