Fruchter not fazed by uncertain future

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Rabbanit Dasi Fruchter will leave Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac next year, becoming the second Orthodox woman to start her own congregation. Photo by Dan Schere.

For a pioneer, Washington’s Modern Orthodox community is getting crowded. Not only are there plenty of rabbis and thriving congregations, there are two women clergy who broke the Orthodox gender barrier by becoming authorities in Jewish law at established congregations. Last month, one of those women announced she was going to light out for the territory.

The wild frontier for Rabbanit Dasi Fruchter, who for two years has been assistant spiritual leader of Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, is Philadelphia.

Philadelphia, she said, is not Washington, where she grew up. It’s also not New York, where she was ordained by Yeshivat Maharat, and which has its share of Orthodox institutions, scholars and congregations.

For Fruchter, 28, Philadelphia may be just right for starting her own gender-inclusive Orthodox congregation. If she does, she’ll be only the second Orthodox woman to do so.

“A lot of people from my New York days are moving [to Philadelphia] now; folks from D.C. are moving there now,” said Fruchter. “There’s a lot of rich Jewish life, and not many of my colleagues from Yeshivat Maharat are there. … I just saw that there was an opportunity to grow something beautiful, and I’m excited to see how that lands.”

It’s a risk, she admitted in an interview last week at Beth Sholom. She’s been back and forth to Philadelphia, meeting with people, and considering possible locations.

“I have confidence, but still am like, ‘Dude, can I do this?’”

Fruchter said she is the beneficiary of good timing, having come of age when becoming a female Orthodox clergy was possible. Her next steps are being powered by a new nonprofit, called Start-Up Shul, that aims to help Orthodox female clergy start their own synagogues.

Fruchter was approached in January by Start-Up Shul’s founders, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue, and Steven Lieberman, a member of the Orthodox synagogue’s board. Both men are leaders of the open Orthodox movement, founded by New York Rabbi Avi Weiss. Herzfeld was assistant rabbi under Weiss at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. Lieberman is a board member of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah for men, founded by Weiss, as was Yeshivat Maharat.

Fruchter said she was interested immediately in Herzfeld and Lieberman’s proposal to help her plant a new congregation in the open Orthodox mold. But she wanted a half year to think it over.

“Leaving a pulpit job is like leaving a family,” she said. “I love this job. I love this shul. And so deciding to do this opportunity took me a really long time. I had to chew on it.”

On July 28, she announced she would leave Beth Sholom in the fall of 2019.

“I love this job. I love this shul,” Rabbanit Dasi Fruchter said. “And so deciding to do this opportunity took me a really long time. I had to chew on it.” Photo by Dan Schere

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for her to shape her own destiny,” said Arnie Hiller, Beth Sholom’s
president.

Start-Up Shul will give Fruchter $75,000 per year for the project, and advice on how to perform essential synagogue functions such as choose board members and attract congregants, Lieberman said. Funding is coming from private donors, he said, including the Washington nonprofit Aviv Foundation. He declined to name other donors.

Herzfeld is in Ukraine and declined requests to be interviewed for this story.

Fruchter will also receive support from Hillel International. Its Office of Innovation has offered her a Rabbinic Entrepreneurs fellowship, which helps recently ordained clergy of all denominations start congregations. According to Rabbi Dan Smokler, Hillel’s chief innovation officer, fellows receive a stipend of about $20,000 and participate in biweekly seminars in New York to learn about building a Jewish community.

Like new businesses, new congregations have a reputation for failure early on, he said. This can be due to a variety of reasons, such as poor leadership, a lack of money or inter-synagogue politics. To succeed, “you have to be a little scrappy and entrepreneurial,” he said.

Fruchter said she plans to visit Philadelphia more frequently in the coming year, and will travel there on Thursdays, which is her day off. Her first priority is to determine which neighborhood would best suit a synagogue, based on the
Jewish population, walkability and affordability.

While this will be a transition year for Fruchter, her announcement is causing Beth Sholom to consider its future needs. Hiller said he would like his congregation to hire another Yeshivat Maharat graduate to succeed Fruchter, but the congregation must evaluate its financial situation before forming a search committee. He said he and the board of directors would make that decision by Oct. 1.

“We are going to take our time and look at our finances and where we want to go strategically,” he said. “We’re not going to rush anything, but we’re going to consider the best interest of the shul.”

Fruchter will need to begin fundraising for her proposed synagogue, which she said will have a “beit midrash culture,” where congregants “access Torah in a new and out-of-the-box way.” But she had few details to offer beyond that.

“Ask me again in six months,” she said.

Selah Maya Zighelboim, a staff writer for the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia, contributed to this story.

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com

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