Deborah Weinberger and Beth Hurvitz: Pioneering Women Co-Presidents of Hebrew Institute of White Plains, NY
Tell me a little bit about yourselves
Beth: I have been living in New Rochelle, NY, and have been a member of the Hebrew Institute of White Plains my entire life. In fact, I was even named at the synagogue!
Deborah: I grew up very differently from the lifestyle I’m living now. I grew up in New York City in a Conservative synagogue and went to Hebrew school, and I never knew this model of an inclusive, Modern Orthodox community existed. In my world, there was either Reform, Conservative or Lubavich, and nothing like this. When I first moved to White Plains with my husband and we had a baby, suddenly I was getting these meals from strangers – I had never experienced anything like that! That was amazing – many friendships started because of those meals – and it’s why I decided to get involved in the synagogue community. I sat on a few committees, starting with the new members committee, I ran a shabbaton, and then Beth and I launched a retreat, so that’s how our relationship started. From that point, it became apparent that we had complementary skills and talents, and we also had a really good time working together.
Beth: It was very clear that we could work well together. Deborah knows everyone in the synagogue. She constantly keeps us in check to make sure we’re doing the right thing. Being the president of the synagogue is different than running a business. It’s about doing the right thing, building a community and making sure everyone has what they need.
Deborah: It’s more like customer service, making sure our congregants feel heard and appreciated. Beth has all kinds of business skills and she’s a natural problem-solver. She is also a single mom by choice. I couldn’t manage a goldfish alone!
Beth: Deborah has three amazing children and an amazing husband. She also runs the thrift shop in the synagogue and she has totally revitalized it. Today it brings in quite a good stream of revenue to the synagogue.
Deborah: The thrift store is also a wonderful community offering. It serves a real need for people in the community in a way that’s respectful.
Beth: We are the first women presidents of the synagogue, and the first co-presidents. When we were first talking about being presidents, it just made more sense to do this as co-presidents. It’s a huge job. The synagogue has 230 families, which means the congregation is too small to have full-time paid staff and there is a lot of work for the president to do. So we realized that we wanted to be able to share the job. We had to change the bylaws and have lots of board conversations to permit it, but everything was fine. There was no pushback about it at all. Everyone is very happy.
Tell me more about your synagogue.
Deborah: We call ourselves Open Orthodox. It’s really a unique institution for progressive, observant Modern Orthodox Jews.
Beth: We’re the only synagogue in lower Westchester that has a women’s tefillah group. Women come from all over to be part of it. The group has grown exponentially, and has created a great bat mitzvah option for girls. My daughter just had her bat mitzvah in the women’s tefillah group and she did everything -- she led the service, read Torah, just like all the boys-- and she was amazing. The women’s tefillah group provided an amazing opportunity for her and for all of us.
How women-friendly is your synagogue in general?
Deborah: It is very women friendly. We recently started passing the Torah through the women’s section, which is a big deal in many Modern Orthodox communities. There are still women in our community who are not comfortable with this level of women’s participation, and they don’t want to come to the women’s tefillah group, but that’s fine. We still create a very welcoming place for them. There’s a place for everyone. It sounds like a sales pitch but it’s true. If you want to be involved, the opportunity is there. Our community is not a cliquey kind of place. People don’t spend Shabbat gossiping about each other. It’s a very special community.
Beth: We also have online learning opportunities for women who want to learn but don’t have time to attend a class. Also, when I was thinking about having my daughter, I spoke with a lot of people about whether it was a good idea to bring a child into the world by myself. I went to the rabbi, Rabbi Chaim Marder, and he was great. He did halachic research, gave me lots of feedback, and came back and said that a child is a wonderful thing and that the community would love to welcome my child. It was really special.
It’s like an embodiment of “it takes a village”!
Deborah: That’s exactly how it feels in synagogue on Shabbat! Everyone knows everyone, everyone know whose child is whose. If someone’s child falls in front of me, I care for the child and find the parents.
Beth: Also, the fact that the synagogue is one hundred years old makes it very intergenerational. We put a real focus on our programming to make sure we take advantage of the intergenerational side of our community.
What are some of the challenges of the job?
Beth: Time! There’s always more work to do. Everyone’s heart is in the right place, but we’re really busy and there’s not a lot of time to get all of the work done.
Deborah: It’s a two year term, and we have many goals for our presidency, but then each day comes and there are fires to put out. Now that we’re at the twilight of our term -- it’s over in June -- we think we’ve finally got it down. We want to feel like we’ve made a difference in the community. I believe that the synagogue is in a good place.
What are your plans after the presidency?
Deborah: Beth is going to become the synagogue’s treasurer. And I’m going to continue with the thrift shop. You know, when Beth asked me to partner with her, I thought, “I can’t. I have little kids.” I needed to get buy-in from my kids and my husband. But everyone was on board. I wanted my kids to see that it’s important to roll up your sleeves and participate in your community. Beth is an amazing role model for her daughter and for the community at large. And the amount she gives to the synagogue is unparalleled. The truth is, the presidency is such a natural role for her. She knows the synagogue like the back of her hand. It’s a perfect fit. And the community is very grateful.
Beth: We have a mutual admiration society!
Why aren’t there more women presidents in Orthodox synagogues?
Deborah: Some synagogues have restrictive by-laws that prohibit women from being presidents. We didn’t. Otherwise, I don’t get it. If a synagogue is progressive, which is what Modern Orthodoxy is, it’s kind of a no-brainer. But, you have to open your community to the possibility.
What advice would you give women who are thinking about becoming president?
Beth: Persevere! Times are changing. There is no halachic reason why women shouldn’t be in this role and the arguments I’ve heard are without merit. For example, women can’t talk to the rabbi. Give me a break! Sure, women presidents don’t sit on the bimah (podium) during davening -- but you’re not supposed to talk during davening anyway!
Deborah: People commented, “You’re not sitting on the bimah.” So now, we make the announcements at the end of services. Our roles have evolved. The important part of being president of the synagogue is not about who is giving announcements. It’s about how inclusive and efficient Beth and I are. We always ask ourselves--are we reaching everyone, what are we doing to make the synagogue a more inclusive and engaging community, how do people feel when they walk into the synagogue. It’s not a pretty building, but our community is growing, which shows that it’s not about the cover but about the inside of the book. This community is extraordinary.
What advice would you give to JOFA to help encourage more women or more synagogues to have women leaders?
Deborah: Think forward, not just to your peers, but also to what you can teach your daughters. It’s not just about strides in reading Torah -- which is paramount, for sure -- but you have to show that leadership goes beyond your roles in business and medicine. You also have to be a leader in the community and stand up and say, “This is our synagogue, and we are leaders here too.” This is so important for our daughters -- and for our sons—to see!
Beth: The more we can do as a community to create more opportunities for women who are involved in synagogue leadership, the better. We should get together for seminars because it’s helpful to speak with other people and other women who are becoming leaders in different synagogues.
Deborah: I don’t think women are shying away from leadership positions -- I think they are waiting to be asked. It’s definitely hard to take on more responsibilities, we all work. Since we took on the job as partners, where we work together like puzzle pieces, where there is no ego involved, that’s a great thing.
Beth: Most people don’t raise their hands to say “I want to be synagogue president.” The question is, how do you get both the synagogues and the women to learn how to ask?