Rabbi Jeffrey Fox has a strange professional goal: to put himself out of a job.
He is rosh yeshiva, or head, of Yeshivat Maharat, launched in 2009 by Rabbi Avi Weiss as the first Orthodox institution to “ordain Orthodox women as spiritual leaders and halachic authorities” — not quite as rabbis, but with comparable training and qualifications for the roles rabbis serve in synagogues, schools, and institutions.
A graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Weiss’s “open” Orthodox rabbinical seminary for men, Fox left a pulpit in Englewood in 2010 for the position at Yeshivat Maharat and is now in the middle of his second year. He will be spending Shabbat, Feb. 24-25, at the Mount Freedom Jewish Center with YM student Miriam Gonczarska, an educator with the Jewish community of Warsaw. Fox and the center’s Rabbi Menashe East studied together in Israel and became friends there before attending YCT.
In advance of the talk, Fox spoke with NJJN about becoming rosh yeshiva, the challenges the institution faces, and some of its goals.
NJJN: What made you want to become rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat?
Rabbi Jeffrey Fox: That’s the hardest of all the questions. Part of it was that as the father of four young boys, I was looking for something that would allow me to have Shabbat back, and I wanted to continue to be involved in some capacity with rabbis and training leaders. The timing was fortuitous.
NJJN: It’s one thing to go to YCT and take a moderate Orthodox position; isn’t it quite another to take on what is the rough equivalent of women’s ordination in Orthodox Judaism?
Fox: Ideologically, part of me would like to envision a different type of Modern Orthodoxy that values the voice of women in religious leadership. I was able to do this in some ways in my synagogue, by offering b’not mitzva and my including women in small aspects of leadership. This gives me the opportunity to think nationally and globally about the role women have to play.
NJJN: Do you think the position of rosh yeshiva ought to go to a woman, considering the nature of the school?
Fox: Yes. I half jokingly say my job is to train my students to put me out of a job. The reality is, however, there are not enough women right now with the learning and the poskening experience to be in this position. But that’s changing. I’d like to say eventually my role will be filled by a woman.
NJJN: What are the biggest challenges you face?
Fox: We want to be able to place these women in synagogues in the Orthodox Jewish community. So our goals include laying the groundwork to do this, and not just educating our students but also educating our congregations. We have to show them that this is for real. We need to train the Orthodox Jewish community for this.
NJJN: And that is more likely to happen in day schools than in a synagogue setting, right?
Fox: Yes, it is easier in day schools. But some synagogues want women, typically as education director, community scholars, and scholars-in-residence. I think any of these are great. I’m cognizant of the need to take baby steps and think about the broadest impact. Therefore, I’m not gunning for senior rabbi positions — at some point, maybe — and the language might be different. But some synagogues are interested in our students. We’ve even had synagogues led by [Rabbinical Council of America] rabbis have our students come to speak.
NJJN: Are you getting any pushback from the larger Orthodox community?
Fox: Look, I don’t feel the pushback. Where synagogues invite our students to come, well, it’s a self-selecting group. Any criticism is twice removed. Maybe a rabbi’s colleagues in a community will say something privately to him, but we won’t hear about that.
NJJN: Have you had trouble recruiting women?
Fox: People find us. There are not any other programs for women in the Orthodox Jewish world like ours, and our name is known widely enough. There are many women who have learned at a high level, but often Talmud and Halacha have not been normative.