Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.
Orthodox women’s tefillah (prayer) groups consist of women who wish to maximize women’s participation in communal prayer while remaining within the halakhic parameters of the Orthodox community, and so meet regularly to conduct prayer services for women only.
The first women’s tefillah group began in the late 1960s on the holiday of Simhat Torah at Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan. Simhat Torah had proved to be a particularly frustrating experience for Orthodox women as all of its customs and celebrations are tied to the synagogue and formal prayer. Perhaps even more critical was the fact that celebration focused on carrying, dancing, and rejoicing with the Torah scrolls, a practice from which women were excluded.
With the support of its rabbi, Shlomo Riskin, the women of Lincoln Square Synagogue were given Torah scrolls for the celebration and permitted to convene a separate Torah reading. Subsequently, it was seen as a major step forward when women in other Orthodox synagogues were also granted the privilege of holding the Torah and taking it to the women’s section. Many groups progressed to conducting full-fledged Simhat Torah services for women only–services in which women read the Torah portion aloud and gave aliyot to every woman present.
The Movement Grows
By the late 1970s, a number of groups began to meet monthly. Some of these prayer services were tied to rosh chodesh (the beginning of the month) and the new moon cycle and met on weekdays, while others met once a month on Shabbat. In 1978 and 1979, tefillah groups were formed in Baltimore, Maryland; in St. Paul, Minnesota; and in Riverdale and Washington Heights, New York. In the early 1980s, the first women’s tefillah group in Canada was founded, shortly followed by the Flatbush group in Brooklyn, New York.
During this period, most women’s tefillah groups met in private homes, as Orthodox synagogues were not prepared to sanction the practice. Two notable exceptions in New York were the Riverdale group, which was invited by Rabbi Avi Weiss to meet in the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, a major Orthodox synagogue, and an East Side group which met in Kehillat Jeshurun under the guidance of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein.
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