America of 2017 is drastically different from American society a century or even a decade ago. Prior to the twenty-first century, not only were the nation’s demographics different, but so was the concept of organized religion. A query posed by Martin Luther King Jr. in his “Letter to Birmingham Jail” (1963) helps set the scene of religion in twentieth-century America, as he asks, “Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nations and the world?” The concept of organized religion was fairly defined in that time, as Protestant Christianity was the dominant religion of America, taking root in its politics and its citizens’ everyday lives. Jewish and Catholic religious groups existed, but accounted for a smaller part of what would have been considered “organized religion.” Ultimately, despite all of said religious bodies being staunch supporters of all that was supposedly good, injustice blatantly prevailed under the noses of the leaders of those religious groups.
Flashing forward half a century or so, Protestant Christianity no longer makes the face of America, as a variety of what were once minority religions have grown more prominent in communities across the US, forming more established congregations. Orthodox Judaism, for example, experienced a similar growth at the turn of the last century, taking shape in places such as St. Louis, Missouri.
Judaism first made an appearance in the United States long before the nation was even known as such. Jews arrived in North America for the first time in 1654. While Jews experienced persecution from those early years and existed as a minority religion in the US for centuries following, it eventually came to be known as one of the three widely practiced religions in America, following Protestant Christianity and Catholicism. A fear of many American Jews that persists into the 21st century is the concern that in their rush to assimilate, American Jews may lose touch with their roots and become lax in their practice. Partially in response to these new circumstances, different branches of Judaism became increasingly distinct. Orthodox Judaism, for instance, became defined by its observance of tradition and law, while Reform Judaism became defined by openness to relaxing the letter of the law in response to modern life. This openness could be seen in the wider development of certain roles in many Jewish congregations, as not only men were solely allowed to lead services, but women found places as spiritual leaders in Jewish congregations.
Changes in Orthodox Jewish traditions and norms have been facilitated by developments such as the “maharat movement,” which has grown in notoriety and popularity over recent years (“The Maharat Movement”, 2013). This movement allows for Orthodox Jewish women to have equal opportunity to spend years of thorough study and practice to gain the qualification of a spiritual leader in the community. The position of a Maharat is part of a movement to gradually adjust the traditional notions held regarding a “woman’s dress, behavior, aspirations, agency and power” (“The Maharat Movement”, 2013). For many, it is a symbol of progress that demonstrates the potential for Orthodox Judaism to adapt to modern culture.
Rori Picker Neiss was one of the first Orthodox Jewish women to achieve this position when she graduated from Yeshivat Maharat in 2011 and came to St. Louis, Missouri. Her position as a Maharat and as acting Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis allows her to play her part in adapting the Orthodox Jewish community to the modern landscape of 2017 and in doing so, answers a fairly definite “no” to Martin Luther King Jr’s infamous question.
Before diving into the life and work of Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, it’s helpful to consider the significance of her title in the scope of Orthodox Judaism. This particular division of Judaism follows closely to the precepts and laws of the Torah. Despite the fact that “no statement in Jewish law prohibits women from becoming rabbis, tradition assumes the weight of law.” (Nadell) As such, there are many who oppose the ordination of women into roles typically held by men in congregations, such as a Rabbi. In spite of said resistance, the force of modernization allowed for the matter of female leadership to gain support, resulting in the development of institutions such as Yeshivat Maharat, which provided a program for Orthodox Jewish women to study sacred texts, further their studies, and earn whichever honorific they so desire, whether it be Rabbi, Rabba, or Maharat. In 2013, Rori Picker Neiss graduated from Yeshivat Maharat as one of many women making up the first generation of Orthodox Jewish women in a position to teach and show the world what Orthodox Judaism looks like in a modern setting.
Rori Picker Neiss was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York to a right wing, Orthodox Jewish family, where religion would come to dominate most of her life. It constituted a central part of her identity and guided her lifestyle. From a young age, she was very passionate of her religion and was intent in becoming more immersed in the study of Orthodox Judaism. This passion led her to choosing a college with diversity (Hunter’s College) where she was placed in a position to explain her religion to others and in doing so, she was able to further explore religious traditions that she always followed without really knowing why she did so. In doing so, she gained an interest in interfaith studies and political science, which brought her more in touch with her religion and allowed her “to recognize religion as a force that drives us.” By coming to said conclusion and considering her own background in religion, having been raised in what may be considered an “extreme” religious community, Neiss decided to pursue interfaith work that allowed her to further explore Judaism. Through this pursuit, in the year 2008, Neiss happened upon a program that “trained women for clergy level positions in the Orthodox Jewish community.” Neiss joined said program in New York, which was called Yeshivat Maharat, and went on to graduate in 2013. Not long after graduating, she was hired by a congregation in St. Louis and it is in that city that she has resided for the past four years, now as the Executive Direction of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis.
Since moving to St. Louis, Maharat Rori Picker Neiss has made a significant impact in the Orthodox community and beyond. She has accomplished this through social activism in and around the city of St. Louis and just by being herself, a woman in a position of high importance in the community. In the aftermath of the Ferguson unrest in 2014 and ongoing police brutality throughout the city, Maharat Neiss protested outside of the federal courthouse in the summer of 2015 with various people of different faiths and standings. She did this while working as the Director of Programming, Education and Community Engagement at Bais Abraham Congregation and while wearing her typical dress that would be recognizable as that of an Orthodox woman. She was arrested for protesting, and in an article written for Forward, Maharat Neiss recognizes her children as the reason behind her activism, stating that “It was their world I hoped to change” (Picker Neiss). Not only is she taking a stance on social issues, she is also establishing herself as an Orthodox Jewish woman with a higher purpose. She has begun, slowly but surely, to alter the outside, societal view of who a woman like her can be, and she is also doing so within her own community.
In the Orthodox tradition, women are typically not given positions of authority and are even restricted from simple acts such as displaying their hair and touching their husbands while menstruating. However, with the creation of the Yeshivat Maharat and the concept of a Maharat, Orthodox women are being viewed in a different light. While the various traditions of the religion still hold true, now more than ever, women are accepted as authority figures in the community. Neiss explains through the interview that there are people in her community who show interest in her and what she represents. Some act on that interest with invitations for hosting and speaking, but those invitations are made with a certain degree of skepticism, as not everyone in her community are entirely accepting of her role as a Maharat. At the moment, Maharat Neiss sees hesitation and a silent fear of acceptance from the people of the Orthodox Jewish community. However, she also sees the future as shifting towards normalization of women holding somewhat higher roles. Her interpretation reflects the changing of the times in the modern world and how this has moved the Orthodox community towards equality of the genders.
In essence, it is clear that Maharat Neiss has made an impact on the Orthodox Jewish community of St.Louis in a variety of significant ways, but most importantly by simply being herself. She brought a female presence into a male dominated system and in doing so, serves as a role model in the community. Since becoming involved, mothers approach her with gratitude for being a part of their daughters’ lives, inspiring them to pursue their passions. While Maharat Neiss’ presence might not be completely of equal stature to men, it comes in the form of teaching and just being a part, however big or small, of the greater community, she manages to make a difference on the thoughts and beliefs of those around her. As mentioned earlier, women do not traditionally have as much freedom as men, and as a part of the Orthodox tradition this fact holds true in a fairly undisputed way. However, young girls now have Maharat Neiss as a role model, a woman who has made a life for herself by pursuing her passions in a way that was unavailable just a short while ago. This, among many other things, is one of the ways that she has impacted the lives of many people in the St. Louis area, which is surely just the beginning.
Researched and written by Emma Anderson, Lamya Augusthy, and Kevin Lopez
"About Us." Jewish Community Relations Council. 2017. Accessed October 17, 2017. http://jcrcstl.org/about/mission.html.
Greenfield, Rabbi Ben. "History." History. 2016. Accessed October 17, 2017. https://www.baisabe.com/history1.html.
Nadell, Pamela S. "Rabbi, Rabba, Maharat, Rabbanit: For Orthodox Jewish Women, What's In a Title? | The University of Chicago Divinity School." Divinity School. January 28, 2016. Accessed October 20, 2017. https://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings/rabbi-rabba-maharat-rabbanit-orthodox-jewish-women-whats-title.
Rori Picker Neiss (Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis) interviewed by Emma Anderson, Lamya Augusthy, Kevin Lopez, St. Louis, MO, October, 2017
Sarna, Jonathan D. American Judaism: a History. Yale University Press, 2008.
"The Maharat Movement." The Forward. June 13, 2013. Accessed December 04, 2017. https://forward.com/opinion/editorial/178571/the-maharat-movement/