Rachel Kohl Finegold, who Star of Davida had the immense honor of interviewing.
Talia bat Pessi: Did you aspire to be a rabbi or enter Jewish leadership when you were a kid, or did you fall into it?
Rachel Kohl Finegold: I very much fell into it. From what I’ve seen, most women of this generation haven’t gotten into this by design. It’s just an expression of who we are. I was always a leader and always liked learning and teaching, but I didn’t want to be a teacher. I figured out in college that I wanted to be a non-classroom educator and was looking at Hillels and high schools to get involved with. When a congregation popped up, I thought it was a nice way to work with so many different populations at the same time, and to also be teaching. It all happened by accident.
Does your family - parents, husband, children - support you?
Definitely. Everyone’s Orthodox but pretty liberal-minded. My father jokes about his daughter the rabbi, but in a very supportive way, and my mom says she wants to be me when grows up - she didn’t have these kind of opportunities in Crown Heights, she didn’t open a Gemara until she was an adult. I couldn’t do any of this without my husband - we jokingly call him a rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife). He’s a rabbi too, but not a pulpit rabbi, more of a philosopher and educator. It would be impossible without him behind me.
Why become a rabbi rather than settling with another religious role?
I’m not actually a rabbi - it’s a male role in Orthodoxy, and I have no desire to be a man. Women should express leadership in feminine way, since there are blatant differences in Judaism between men and women. I just want to be leader - that’s who I am. Being a rebbetzin is just being an extension of my husband - it’s not about me, it’s about him, and who I chose to marry isn’t my career path. I’m not angry, but talking to a lot of older women of previous generations, I see that they had to really fight for the ability to open a Torah or learn Gemara and have women’s tefilla (prayer) groups, but no one ever told me no. I didn’t lain (read from the Torah) at my bat mitzvah, but I got to speak in front of the shul (synagogue) - the tone is very different for me and my age bracket. I grew up in eighties and nineties and it’s evidence - I didn’t fight. A lot of women sound angry, but we have nothing to be angry about, and it’s important to realize that. We’re not trying making a statement by entering Jewish leadership, we’re just being who we are.
What exactly do you do as rabbi in your shul?
As I’m the education and ritual director, I basically am the second-in-command. I run the adult education and youth programming and help run the mikvah, plus more of the “rabbi-type stuff,” like giving shiurim (Torah lessons) and giving the sermon once a month (switching off with the rabbi). I also function as a general religious role model and host people in home - it’s like being assistant rabbi under another title. Everyone sees me differently, however they feel comfortable.
If you pasken halakha (rule on Jewish law), which women are usually not allowed to do, how do you go about doing so?
Right now I don’t, but people will ask me sometimes for specific information like, “I used a dairy knife on meat - what should I do?” It’s not really psak (a ruling) - it’s just specific information. It’s a fine line, but an important line. I’m currently enrolled in the Yeshivat Maharat program because I want to feel confident that whatever psak I give is right. If I’m not sure then I ask the rabbi, and I’ll always do that, but it shouldn’t always be a matter of finding other people and wanting to double-check.
Do you find that being female adds or detracts from your role as rabbi, or is it neutral?
I play piano - no one would ask me how I play piano as a woman. It’s the same difference when it comes to women in Jewish leadership. There are moments where it’s advantageous, like when we have a bar or bat mitzvah and we ask the family to stand together and I can stand with women on women’s side of the synagogue and we celebrate, or when I say the mi sheberakh (prayer for healing) for a bat mitzvah girl - life cycle events. When I teach chatan (groom) and kallah (bride) classes it’s different coming from a woman, or at the mikvah, there are things that women can do things men can’t. Other times it feels like I have to be better than men in Jewish leadership, because I’m doing something women haven’t done much of in the past. The perfectionist in me doesn’t want people to think I’m just doing this because I’m a woman and that I’m not great at this.
What advice would you give to other women who want to follow your lead and pursue positions in the religious field?
Stay true to who you are, if this is a true expression of you and if you want to serve the Jewish people then you’ll find a way to make it all work. That’s ultimately what carries women in Jewish leadership forward - we just want to serve the Jewish people.