On the Sunday in mid-June when a yeshiva in Manhattan ordained three women as Orthodox Jewish religious leaders, Nelson Mandela lay in a Pretoria hospital for the second week with a life-threatening lung infection. Six time zones and 8,000 miles separated these two events. One golden thread, however, bound them together.
That connection was Sara Hurwitz, the dean of Yeshivat Maharat, which had educated the women. She was the first woman ever to have been designated a maharat ”” an acronym from the Hebrew words for a teacher of Jewish law and spirituality ”” and to subsequently receive the title of “rabba” from the maverick Orthodox rabbi who had trained her, Avi Weiss. For Ms. Hurwitz, born and raised in South Africa during the turbulent years of apartheid, Mr. Mandela had long served as the inspiration for her journey to breaking the gender barrier in the Orthodox Jewish rabbinate.
“I looked at this person as someone who could have been so angry and so disappointed at the land that incarcerated him for so many years for civil disobedience,” Rabba Hurwitz, 36, said in a recent interview. “And he walked out of prison and formed a peaceful government. He could have focused on the injustice of it all, the time he had lost. But instead he saw this newfound freedom as a chance to make change and do what was right. Marching forward, one step after the other, toward justice, without anger.”
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