American Orthodoxy

JLIC: The OU Program That Introduced a New Vision of Orthodox Women’s Leadership

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Editors’ Note: The Orthodox Union’s recent statement regarding professional roles for women in Orthodox synagogues has sparked heated debate for the sake of heaven. In the hopes of contributing to that ongoing conversation, Lehrhaus has convened a symposium to reflect upon the statement. Over the course of the next week we will post further installments, so please check back frequently. Each contribution will contain links to the other pieces in the symposium.

Symposium Contributions: Sara WolkenfeldTzvi SinenskyShmuel WiniarzLeah SarnaRivka Press SchwartzMatt ReingoldLaura Shaw FrankChaim TwerskiChaim Trachtman,  Shayna GoldbergShaul RobinsonTodd BermanJeffrey FoxElli FischerJeffrey WoolfZev Eleff & Ari Lamm

Todd Berman

In 1996, while finishing my studies for rabbinic ordination, one of my mentors, Rabbi Menachem Schrader, approached my wife Nomi and me about a program he was creating, “Campus Torah Learning Centers,” to serve Orthodox students on American college campuses. Students would spend years in Orthodox educational environments and yeshivot in Israel and then find themselves on college campuses without Orthodox leadership. There were a handful of Orthodox Hillel directors, but they had responsibilities toward Jewish students of every stripe, and Chabad centers did not meet the needs of many Modern Orthodox students. Rabbi Schrader was greatly troubled by the seeming abandonment of these students by the Modern Orthodox community and decided to create a program to address that need.

But the new program still had many hurdles (most notably of the financial variety) to clear before it could become viable, and Nomi and I had been offered teaching positions at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem, so with a young child to care for, we decided to remain in Israel.

Serving as full-time faculty at Midreshet Lindenbaum placed us on equal footing. We each taught Talmud, halakhah, and several other subjects. Because we also lived in the dormitory, students would turn to us equally for guidance.

After four years at Lindenbaum and several more children, it was time for a change. Nomi and I were investigating the possibility of relocating temporarily to the US, when Richard Joel, the National Director of Hillel, suggested that we get back in touch with Rabbi Schrader. This time we signed on: It was finally time to launch this initiative, which we renamed the “Jewish Learning Initiative,” or JLI.

Donors agreed to back Rabbi Schrader’s idea and he garnered support from Torah MiTzion, an organization that sends Israelis out to kollelim throughout the Diaspora. Rabbi Schrader approached Rabbi Lichtenstein to receive a carefully crafted blessing. National Hillel came on board as an official sponsor. Finally, after some initial skepticism, the Hillels of University of Pennsylvania, Brandeis University, and Yale University welcomed JLI with open arms. We chose Brandeis, and funding was found to place a second couple, Rabbi Ilan and Leah Haber, at Yale.

It must be noted that the placement of married couples was a key feature of Rabbi Schrader’s design. A husband and wife team of educators would be placed on each target campus to serve as models for both men and women and to act as living exemplars of a strong, committed Jewish family. Like at Lindenbaum, Nomi and I would serve on equal terms and we would each receive our own salary.

Things were falling into place, but there was one more organization whose sponsorship would prove crucial: the Orthodox Union.

The OU welcomed JLI, but there was one hitch: some suggested that the women should not get salaries, as rebbetzins in general did not draw independent salaries. Even though this would have no effect on the couple’s bottom line since the funding had been secured regardless of how it was divided, Rabbi Schrader refused to budge. In order for JLI to work, he explained, students needed male and female, married, educational role models. Husband and wife would work on equal terms, and if they were expected to do the same duties, they should be seen as independent employees.

The OU ultimately accepted Rabbi Schrader’s view, and JLI on Campus (or JLIC) ventured forth as an unprecedented partnership between the OU, Torah MiTzion, and Hillel. Highly educated married couples, receiving separate salaries, were hired to meet the religious needs of the college students, including formal teaching, pastoral counseling, programming, learning one-on-one, public speaking, and, when needed, answering questions of Jewish law.

What began as a grudging concession soon became a source of pride. The theme of the 2002 OU Convention in Westchester, NY, was increasing the role of women in leadership. The JLIC educators were invited to hold a series of meetings so that the OU could show off the program, which had grown to several campuses. At the opening plenary, JLIC was held up as a new paradigm in Orthodox women’s leadership (as indeed it was). The OU took pride in placing teaching couples, each with his and her own salaried position, on campuses as models for Orthodox college students.

Because each educator received a separate salary, it was clear from Day Oneand was even made explicit to the couplesthat each served an independent and indispensable role. Educators were employed on equal footing and were expected to function as partners to divide up and accomplish the varied tasks that the situation demanded. However, since Rabbi Schrader felt that married couples working together was a cornerstone of the entire project, nothing about the program appeared radical to the OU or to JLIC’s founders and supporters.

In hindsight, it was revolutionary, a breakthrough in the empowerment of Orthodox women as religious leaders. Having each person as an independent employee of the OU meant that every educator was an integral part of a team, a partnership, on equal footing with his or her spouse. Today, the women who serve as JLIC educators on some two dozen campuses in the US and Canada (not to mention a program in the UK modeled directly on JLIC) exemplify Jewish religious leadership for the thousands of Orthodox and the multitude of non-Orthodox Jewish students on campus.

Recently, the OU released a paper, based on the findings of a Rabbinic Panel comprised of seven prominent Torah scholars who serve the Modern Orthodox community, on the parameters of acceptable roles for women as religious leaders. The paper stated that:

Women can and should teach Torah, including at advanced and sophisticated levels; give shiurim and divrei Torah; assume communally significant roles in pastoral counseling, in bikkur cholim, in community outreach to the affiliated and unaffiliated, in youth and teen programming; and in advising on issues of taharas hamishpacha, in conjunction with local rabbinic authority, when found by a community’s local rabbinic and lay leadership to be appropriate (pp. 7-8).

JLIC couples certainly accomplish all of these tasks and function in all of these capacities. Of course, the panel also “made clear that women serving in clergy roles or holding clergy titles is at odds with halacha and our mesorah.” Does the OU’s own program run afoul of that guideline?

Given that each JLIC educator brings her own abilities and background to the unique culture of the campus on which she serves, it is very difficult to draw a clear line between the roles of educator, chaplain, pastor, halakhic guide, and other forms of religious leadership. As Rabbi Shaul Robinson put it, “What exactly does the term ‘clergy’ mean? It is an English word, not a halakhic term.”

By supporting and eventually absorbing the program in 2000, the OU embraced the models of leadership espoused by JLIC educators, both male and female, and the entire gamut of activities they perform on campus. Perhaps the fact that the women of JLIC are married, work alongside their husbands, lack titles that identify them as clergy, and address such a clear communal need suffices to sidestep the issues raised by the committee. If that is the case, then the opposition to women as clergy would indeed seem to be an objection to using clergy-like titles, not serving in clergy-like capacities. What is clear is that Rabbi Schrader carefully created the JLIC model in consultation with Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, Torah MiTzion, and, eventually, the OU. The women who serve as educators on each campus play a vital role in campus religious life, as fully employed educators of the OU, fulfilling many if not all the duties of university chaplains, and have been doing so for almost two decades, with astonishing success and great acclaim.

Rabbi Menachem Schrader dreamt of creating Orthodox leadership for college campuses, and women were an integral part of that dream. Although it was not seen as revolutionary at the time, and Rabbi Schrader would deny that it is revolutionary, we can now say, with almost twenty years of hindsight, that through JLIC, the OU created a new model of Orthodox female leadership, which by now has served as a model for thousands of students.

Todd Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. He has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisor to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.