This past Simchat Torah I had the fortune of dividing my time between two minyanim: the Mount Sinai Jewish Center in Washington Heights and Yavneh, the Orthodox minyan at Barnard College, Columbia University. This was one of the first times that I attended Mount Sinai and I was, therefore, apprehensive about spending Simchat Torah in a potentially non-women friendly atmosphere.
For most of my life, I have not spent Simchat Torah night in the standard Orthodox synagogue environment. During my teenage years, I was often at a Bnei AkivaShabbaton. At Barnard, I danced on Simchat Torah night alongside Jews of a variety of denominations, an experience I certainly would not have had at any typical Orthodox Jewish congregation.
As I stood in the women’s section at Mount Sinai during hakafot, it occurred to me that this was the first time that I was choosing to be in an environment that did not involve women’s equal participation to the degree that halakha permits. In my mind, attending the shul in my hometown and the Orthodox minyan at Barnard were never really choices: they were options that were either familiar or available. Yet, exactly one month before the holiday, my husband and I celebrated our joint aufruf in which we both read from the torah at a partnership minyan. On my second shabbat in Washington Heights and for the first time in my life, I was choosing to daven at a shul with values inconsistent with my own.
But when Simchat Torah came around, I was pleasantly surprised! Mount Sinai presented women with two options: we could dance without a torah but in the same room as the men, or we could participate in women-led hakafot in the shul’s basement. If you are anything like me, when you read “dance without a torah,” you probably sighed inwardly. Then, upon seeing that the more “active” women were relegated to the basement, you probably became incensed!
I am here to report that what I originally conceived of as a mere basement rapidly transformed itself into a supremely vibrant and empowering environment. Women of all ages and of varying degrees of religiosity stood with their arms wrapped around sifrei Torah and led hakafot. The excitement was palpable. I danced with my friends conscious that our collective presence constituted the women’s hakafot experience. It was reassuring to realize that women can come together and create something meaningful of their own that feels neither forced nor apologetic.
The following morning, a sweaty 68 blocks and 2 avenues later, I arrived at the Columbia/Barnard Hillel pumped to continue the Simchat Torah celebrations. As I opened my arms to accept a Torah, I glanced across the mechitza: the fact that I was holding a Torah equal to the men was not lost on me.
After hakafot, for the fourth and final year, I participated in a Women’s Tefillah Group at Barnard sponsored by Jewish Women on Campus. I was proud to read shlishi 5 times; there were that many women who were excited to receive aliyot. Women were given the option of saying birchot hatorah, lamdeini chukecha, or nothing at all. This environment, too, did not fully reflect my religious beliefs. It was thrilling, nonetheless, to be surrounded by women learning from one another and making informed religious choices that enhanced their celebration of the Torah. I loved that women who had never received aliyot would provide the gabbait with both their mother and father’s names before being called up to the torah—like it was the most normal thing in the world!
While in general I prefer to pray in a partnership minyan, my Simchat Torah experience at Mount Sinai and Columbia/Barnard reminded me of how crucial it is to support women in celebrating the torah in whichever context they choose to pray.