Beyond courtesy: Titles raise conundrum for schools and synagogues nationwide
September 12, 2017
When Judaic Studies teacher Ilana Wilner arrived at Shalhevet in fall 2015, it wasn’t clear what she was going to be called.
She did not want to be called Morah, or teacher, because that’s what elementary school teachers are called and she felt it didn’t fit with her experience, education and knowledge. Ms. Wilner is a graduate of GPATS, the Graduate Program of Advanced Talmudic Studies at Yeshiva University in New York.
According to Principal Dr. Noam Weissman, his wife Raizie Weissman, then Director of Student Life, jokingly suggested the title Chachama, which means “wise one.” Ms. Weissman lightheartedly introduced her that way to students and she was soon being called Chachama by both students and faculty.
She is not called that any more.
Dr. Weissman says he was surprised to see her referred to as Chachama Wilner in a Boiling Point story in March 2016, and after that said the title had to go.
Ms. Wilner didn’t mind.
“If people call me that, call me that, but I don’t introduce myself as that any more,” Ms. Wilner said in an interview. “It actually carries a lot of weight—a chacham is a rabbi, so a chachama is technically a female rabbi, which I don’t have and I don’t want.”
Dr. Weissman said she should be called Ilana, Ms. Wilner or Morah Ilana.
“She is not a chachama,” Dr. Weissman said in an interview with the Boiling Point. “That is a formal title, and that is not what she is.”
Judaic Studies faculty titles are a sort of a mystery at Shalhevet, and not only the titles for women. Rabbi doesn’t always mean a person has s’micha — rabbinic ordination; Reb definitely doesn’t mean rabbi; and women’s titles have generally been decided after a conversation.
The situation isn’t much different at other schools. Women who have received ordination at Yeshivat Maharat in New York have titles ranging from Rabbanit (at LA’s Bnai David-Judea) and Rabba (at New York’s Hebrew Institute of Riverdale) to Maharat (at Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley).
Ramie Smith, a Maharat graduate who is teaching a sophomore Talmud class at Shalhevet this year, has arrived with no title at all. She was called Rabba at Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, and Head of School Rabbi Ari Segal said it would be up to students to decide what to call her, as long as it was “appropriate.”
“We are not going to be discussing a title this year,” Rabbi Segal wrote in an email to the Shalhevet community June 16. He said the school had decided to have her teach in spite of the controversy, which he acknowledged.
“While we recognize this legitimate point of contention, at this juncture our priority is focused squarely on the quality of our education,” he wrote. “We have made the joint decision that limud ha’Torah should trump the political difficulties.”
Faculty and clergy titles might not matter so much except that “rabbi” is the universal title of authority in Judaism, and at least in our time, there is no other. Those of either gender who don’t have it may seem somehow diminished or “less than,” especially in a culture where titles convey meaning – and sometimes respect – that can’t be put into words.
“I wish titles didn’t matter,” said Rabbi Segal during a Boiling Point news conference in May. “In schools in particular, I think people are overly invested in titles. Titles are very delicate — I don’t mean to be flippant.”
In secular society, the title “Dr.” is comparable, he said.
“There are a million doctors in the world,” Rabbi Segal said. “The title ‘Dr.’just means someone conferred on you the title doctor. Being a rabbi to me means someone conferred on you the title ‘rabbi.’”
Rabbinic ordination, or s’micha (pronounced SMEE-kha), is partly the same way, Rabbi Segal said.
“If you want to do research historically, the notion of s’micha was literally a very specific topic in the Gemara — how it took place and one person gave s’micha to another person,” Rabbi Segal said. “It was a very specific, prescribed process.”
That, he said, is no longer the case.
“The modern-day world has moved away from that,” he said. “There are many different types of s’micha, across all different denominations,” and there are types of s’micha that apply only to kashrut and education. There are a million types of s’micha right now.”
Judaic Studies teacher Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg said the concept has evolved greatly since the original s’micha, when Moshe appointed Yehoshua to succeed him as leader of Israel.
He said that at first, s’micha meant a physical “leaning”; a rabbi would lay his hands on a new rabbi’s shoulders and confer s’micha onto him. Later it turned into appearing before a court of witnesses, in Israel only. This early, formal s’micha ultimately ended at an unclear time, probably around the fourth or fifth century C.E., and Rabbi Schwarzberg thinks it probably had something to do the destruction of the Second Temple and the ensuing exile.
Eventually, s’micha became more of a graduate degree that is “very similar to a graduate degree that is used for any other discipline,” Rabbi Schwarzberg said. It takes four years to earn s’micha from Yeshiva University, where most of Shalhevet’s faculty was trained.
“Ordination became something that is formal, to receive a title,” Rabbi Schwarzberg said, “and it certainly was influenced by the rest of the world, [including] the Christian communities.”
Now, the process is complicated throughout the Jewish world. And titles have become the subject of rabbinic analysis, synagogue board meetings, and plenty of Shabbat conversation.
Rabbi Segal said how a person got the title is not the important thing, at least as far as what he is willing to call them.
“If somebody asked me to call them a rabbi, I’d call them a rabbi,” he said. “If they got a s’micha from a school that doesn’t match my hashkafa, I’m still happy to call them Rabbi. I don’t think that it means that I agree.”
At Shalhevet, titles have been conferred by Rabbi Segal in his e-mail announcement to the community of new hires. Rabbis David Stein, David Block, Yagli Tsaidi and Rabbi Schwarzberg were all called Rabbi in these announcements, though only Rabbi Schwarzberg had completed his education and attended the s’micha ceremony before starting to teach at the school.
Rabbi Schwarzberg received his rabbinic ordination in 2009 from Yeshiva University, then attended the Harvard Divinity School where he earned a Master’s Degree in theological studies.
Rabbi Block earned an M.A. in Jewish History, M.S. in Education and received his rabbinic ordination, all from YU. He completed his rabbinical studies at RIETS, YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, in 2015 and is now a doctoral student there.
RIETS holds its ordination ceremony only once every four years. Rabbi Block was formally ordained there this past March, along with Rabbi Stein; both had finished their studies during the past four years.
Rabbi Stein arrived at Shalhevet in the fall of 2012, after graduating from Yeshiva University in 2009 and receiving his Master’s Degree in engineering from Columbia in 2011.
Rabbi Tsaidi is working on his ordination under the supervision of Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg in Israel. He graduated from the Farber Hebrew Day School, also known as Akiva, in Detroit in 2009 and then attended Yeshivat Hakotel for two years. He then graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in psychology from YU.
He said that he’s “not fully comfortable” with being called Rabbi, seeing as he does not have his s’micha yet.
“I’d ideally like to have my smicha as soon as possible,” Rabbi Tsaidi.
Rabbi Tsaidi says he studied every night and just this month passed the test for his s’micha, and will soon visit Israel to formally receive his ordination.
S’micha he said, confers the authority to answer halachic questions – that is, matters of Jewish law, and he hopes to have his by the end of the year.
“Even David Hamelech [King David] said that when he learned one thing from someone, that person became a rabbi,” Rabbi Tsaidi said in an interview last spring. “Anyone who teaches you should have the respect of a rabbi— s’micha or not. To ask halakhic questions, you should go to someone with s’micha.”
Dr. Weissman agreed.
“Historically people who teach Torah, specifically men who teach Torah, were always called Rabbi regardless of if they had gone through the process of signing and ordination,” Dr. Weissman said.
Rabbi Segal said he decided to call Rabbi Tsaidi rabbi because he was already planning to get s’micha.
“Rather than switching the title, we felt like he was in this process,” Rabbi Segal said. “He was just starting it but he was in that process, so we called him Rabbi Tsaidi.”
Dr. Weissman, before he finished his doctorate, was always called Reb Weissman or Reb Noam, choosing “Reb” over Rabbi because getting s’micha was never in his plans.
According to Shalhevet Judaic teacher Rabbi Abraham Lieberman, reb a yiddish word short for rebbe and is the equivalent to mister or sir.
After graduating from Beth Tfiloh in 2003, Dr. Weissman attended Yeshiva Mevaseret in Jerusalem for two years, and then studied history at YU, graduating in 2008. He spent some time at Yeshivat Hakotel in Israel, and then he received a Master’s Degree from YU in Jewish Education in 2012.
“I’m in Jewish education,” said Dr. Weissman. “I think in many ways s’micha is not relevant for a high school educator. It can be relevant, but it’s not always relevant.”
Now that he has his Ed.D. – received in June from USC — Dr. Weissman wants the students to decide what he is called.
“I don’t care what they call me,” he said in an interview.
Compared to other Jewish high schools, Shalhevet is unique in some ways and typical in others. Last spring, the Boiling Point reached out to eight Orthodox schools and one synagogue around the U.S.
Most, including YULA Boys and Girls high schools in Los Angeles and Frisch Academy in New Jersey, did not return messages or emails — perhaps a sign of the difficulty.
There was also one school that returned a phone call and asked not included in this story because its officials planned to revisit the topic of titles in discussions over the summer.
But four schools that did reply said all current faculty who were being called rabbi had completed their rabbinic training and acquired s’micha.
At Beth T’filoh High School in Baltimore, MD – a community school and Reb Weissman’s alma mater – some male teachers were called rabbi in the past even though they were still in rabbinical school.
Rabbi Mordechai Soskil, the school’s Director of Judaic Studies, said right now all their rabbis have s’micha – that is, formal ordination and a certificate that says so. He wasn’t sure why it was different in the past, but he thought it had to do with convenience.
“They were already in a s’micha program, so it’s easier not have to switch in the minds of the kids,” Rabbi Soskil said. “It was easier this way, that’s my hunch.”
Most of the female teachers at Beth T’filoh go by Ms. or Morah, though the school has just hired a graduate of Yeshivat Maharat who will be called Rabbanit, Rabbi Soskil said.
At Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago, the alma mater of Rabbi Stein, Tanakh department chair Ms. Beth Kirshner said that most female teachers go by Miss or Mrs., but that there is the occasional teacher who goes by Rebbetzin – which traditionally means that she is a rabbi’s wife.
“[Titles] are based on preference and level of education,” said Ms. Kirshner. “If someone will be called a rabbi, he has to have s’micha. If somebody wants to be called Dr., they have to have a some type Ph.D. or other doctorate degree.”
At Ramaz High School in New York City, all women teachers are called Ms., including women who have completed the Yoetzet Halacha program, according to Ms. Miriam Krupka, Ramaz’s Dean of Faculty.
Ms. Krupka, who was formerly a teacher and Tanakh department chair, said the only exceptions are those who have doctorates, who are called Doctor.
“When I came 11 years ago, I was Ms. Krupka and all of the other female faculty basically were Ms. as well, and that’s kind of the way it went,” said Ms. Krupka.
“I don’t know why that is or how that came about,” she said. “I do know that I liked it when I first got there. There was kind of objective status that I think I appreciated.”
Ms. Krupka said all the rabbis at Ramaz have s’micha, and male Judaic faculty members are either known as Mr., Rabbi, or Dr., depending on their education.
Ms. Wilner – definitely being introduced as Ms. this year — attended high school at SAR (Salanter Akiba of Riverdale, N.Y.) and then did a gap year at the rigorous seminary Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim in the Emek Refaim neighborhood of Jerusalem.
She went on to Stern College of Yeshiva University, earning a bachelor’s degree in Judaic Studies before enrolling in GPATS, where women study Gemara and Halakha from nine in the morning until 5:30 p.m.
She chose GPATs, she said, because it was the only Orthodox advanced women’s learning program that focuses on Talmud while not ordaining its graduates to serve as clergy.
“We have the ability to learn and to know everything that an actual rabbi knows, it just happens to be that the time frame of the program is only two years,” Ms. Wilner said, as opposed to the four years at RIETS. “We are as prepared, we have the knowledge, we have the skill, we have the training; we also have YU backing us.
“It’s really cool, a lot of girls on the program don’t go into Jewish education or even Jewish communal work — people just view it as an amazing opportunity,” Ms. Wilner said.
In an ideal world with politics aside, Ms. Wilner would prefer to be called Rabbanit because of the respect it carries.
She said that in Israel, female members of Beit Hillel — a learning movement that encourages women’s leadership – go by the title of Rabbanit, but that’s because in Israel Rabbanit is used interchangeably with Rebbitzin, a rabbi’s wife, making it less controversial.
“Am I qualified to be a rabbanit?” she said. “I don’t know what makes someone a rabbanit. It also carries a lot of weight.”
Some people still call her Chachama. Alumnus Alec Fields ’17 said he called her that out of habit, while junior Bailey Mendelson still calls her Chachama because that’s how she remembers Ms. Wilner introducing herself. Fellow junior Eliana Cohen thought that was what Ms. Wilner wanted to be called.
For now, Ms.Wilner is happy with the title she has. She will be teaching 9th and 10th Tanach and 12th-grade Talmud this year, as well as co-leading Student Activities with Rabbi Tsaidi.
It was not clear on the day before school started what Ramie Smith would be called, and she had so far declined to discuss her views on the subject.
Rabbi Tsaidi will have his smicha soon, and Dr. Weissman, like Ramie Smith, is waiting to see what the students decide.
So while titles themselves – and the education behind them – may be changing, what is likely to endure is the uncertainty surrounding them — and in Shalhevet’s case, the emphasis on providing good Jewish educators, titles aside.
Titles for women are even more complicated
Women’s titles are problematic at Modern Orthodox institutions — not just at Shalhevet — because women’s leadership in Orthodox Judaism is still new and controversial.
Reform and Conservative Judaism have ordained women rabbis for many years. But Orthodoxy has held to a tradition that dates from times when few women had the time or means to study as rigorously as men.
In recent decades, Orthodox women have increasingly studied the same material as men, and the Orthodox Union, in statements earlier this year, said there was a need to study the matter.
In its February statement prohibiting Orthodox congregations from hiring women to serve as clergy, it said titles should be considered.
“Though such titles could not – and should not – connote ordination or rabbinic function, the Rabbinic Panel has made clear that words – and titles – matter,” the statement said. “In short, the dignity accorded such positions must be commensurate with the importance we place on them.”
Ms. Atara Segal, who spent last year in lsrael for the first out of two years of her Yoetzet Halacha program at Nishmat, said she would still be called Ms. when she finishes.
The position of Yoetzet Halacha is recognized by virtually all Orthodox institutions. But it isn’t used as an honorific, or courtesy title, and that’s deliberate, according to Rabbanit Chana Henkin, co-founder of the program with her husband, Rabbi David Henkin.
Rabbanit Henkin says on Nishmat’s website that the program tried to steer clear of the controversy to gain the widest possible acceptance for those she trained, who assist women with observance of taharat hamishpacha, laws pertaining to women’s health and marital intimacy.
According to Nishmat, there have been more than 200,000 questions asked worldwide on the Yoetzet Halacha telephone hotline, and Yoatzot have been employed by communities across Israel, North America and the Great Britain.
“Yoatzot Halacha have given women a dignified and much-needed halachic address for intimate issues…,” Rabbanit Henkin said. “I strongly believe that our decision to avoid fractious titles, while maintaining a sense of what the community is prepared to accept, has enabled us to build a new consensus around the reality of women halachic scholars.”
In the U.S., a rabbanit is usually a woman whom received s’micha from Yeshivat Maharat, a four-year program which educates Orthodox women for clergy roles in the same way a rabbinical school does.
Recognizing the novelty of the concept, the Riverdale, N.Y., yeshiva invented a new Hebrew word as a title — “Maharat” an anagram standing for the Hebrew words manhiga, hilchanit, Toranit, which means spiritual leader, teacher of Torah, expert in halacha.
“By providing a credentialed pathway for women to serve as spiritual and halakhic guides, we increase the community’s ability to attract the best and brightest into the ranks of its leadership,” it says on its website.
It does not specify an appropriate title.
“Graduates of Yeshvat Maharat are conferred as toreh toreh – a [decision maker] of Jewish law. We encourage our graduates to use the professional title most appropriate to them, I consultation with the communities they serve.”
Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn, a graduate of Yeshivat Maharat, began her tenure as the junior clergy member at Los Angeles’ Bnai David-Judea Congregation two years ago, with the title as Morateinu. But she now is being called Rabbbanit.
“What was most important to me was that it would be the right fit for our community and something that would also be a part of the greater community,” Rabbanit Thomas-Newborn told the Boiling Point last year.
“A variety of titles are being used throughout the world at this point. I think it depends on the community you’re in and what’s the right fit for both the person with the title and the community that person’s working in or the institution that person is working in.”
Shalhevet Principal Dr. Noam Weissman acknowledged that the subject of what to call highly educated women is difficult.
“It is a real challenge that the Modern Orthodox community should be thinking deeply about,” said Dr. Weissman, “and the Modern Orthodox community has started to think deeply about it.”