I was sitting in synagogue beside a beautiful, ornate, wood carved mechitzah when I saw something I had never noticed before. The Gabbai, while checking if the congregation was done praying the Shemonah Esrei and if the leader should continue with the prayers, looked over to my side of the mechitzah. It was only then, as a senior in college, that I realized what I had been missing—a prayer community that acknowledges and values women’s presence.
I have never really been interested in women’s prayer groups as I feel that communal prayer is about community and mine includes all people, men and women. While I won’t argue with their validity, I also have never been a proponent of egalitarian style minyanim, prayer communities, as I am very okay with the fact that I, with a nursing baby and no eruv have a different halakhic requirement for praying with a minyan, quorum, than men do. But, I am also not okay with the fact that I am often all alone in the women’s section for the first hour and a half of synagogue services on Shabbat morning and for all of synagogue services on Shabbat afternoon.
My family normally attends a small Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn where my husband is the rabbi. On two occasions this year, we have gone away for Shabbat. When we arrived in synagogue on Shabbat morning, the first thing my daughter asked was, “why is there no one on our side?” and then she ran to the men’s side to be with Daddy.
Orthodox Judaism, you are failing me as a mother! I have never felt like a lesser member in an Orthodox synagogue than at that moment.
How was what I did in synagogue any different than what my husband was doing? Or for that matter, what most of the men were doing? When it comes down to numbers, only about 3-8 men are up on the bima, podium, leading or visibly participating in the service for those three hours on Shabbat morning. It was not until that college Gabbai turned to check that the women were done with Shemonah Esrei that I realized that I want the synagogues in my daughter’s future to make a much more conscious effort to make her feel like an important member of the community. In our small synagogue there is no noticeable difference between the two sides of the mechitzah (as I said, we’re a small synagogue to begin with), but in all too many Orthodox synagogues the women’s section is lacking in numbers of attendees, as well as space.
My daughter was born on Tisha B’Av, which excited me because it means that she could have a truly purposeful Bat Mitzvah. Instead of reading a speech in synagogue written by her grandfather, like I did (and even that was pretty progressive), she has a variety of meaningful options. She can learn to read the Book of Eicha, Lamentations. She can make a siyum (celebrate the completion) on Eicha or on select selichot. Those projects have lasting purpose. They are transferrable skills. She could reuse her skills and read Eicha every year on Tisha B’Av.
Recently, my synagogue began a women’s megillah reading program. As I prepared to read Shir Hashirim, Song of Songs, on Passover, and the Book of Ruth on Shavuot, I thought about making sure that my daughter was up in the main synagogue while I read so that she could see her mommy doing “something important” in synagogue. I then realized that the point of all this is to normalize women’s participation. She should be able to miss my megillah reading sometimes, just like she sometimes misses her daddy’s Torah reading. Women’s participation shouldn’t be special, it should be normal. She should think, “Mommy and Daddy both go to synagogue and sometimes Daddy leads prayers and Mommy can read me a book, but then sometimes Mommy is busy praying and Daddy can get me water.” If my megillah reading is special, then it is not common place.
Sadly, the “normal” in today’s Orthodox synagogue is an empty or half empty women’s section until two hours into the service. As a larger community, we need to look deeper and question why this has happened and then instill policies that can ameliorate this problem.
Is the problem child care? Then let’s start children’s groups at the same time as services, or let’s be more accepting of children’s noise. Let us even go so far as to create a dark, quiet space for babies to nap.
Is the problem a lack of opportunities for women to get involved? Then let’s invite and encourage women to read the prayers for the government and for the State of Israel. Let’s pass the Torah around the entire synagogue. Let’s have two Hoshanah circles during Sukkot—one for women and one for men. Everyone should be able to dance with and celebrate the Torah!
The question that needs to be asked is: How do we make sure that everyone is valued the same whether they are male or female? How can we create Orthodox synagogues that value our daughters as important members of the community?
Gabbais should always know to check the women’s side to make sure that they are ready for the next section of prayers, and there should always be a packed house looking back.
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When I think about Shavuot, the first image that pops into my head is a mob of Israelites gathered at the base of Mt. Sinai, impatiently waiting to receive the Torah amidst shofar blasts, smoke, and lightning. This image inevitably triggers Merle Feld’s poignant poem, “We All Stood Together,” and Judith Plaskow’s iconic book, Standing Again at Sinai. Both of these feminist texts explore women’s absence from Jewish tradition and from the moment of revelation and explore the ways that Judaism can transform itself to become more inclusive. I am well aware that feminism and gender are essential lenses for my Jewish experience (after all, I do work at JOFA) but I was a bit surprised that my subconscious had designated Shavuot as a holiday of exclusion. The Torah tells us that women, along with men, were present at Mt. Sinai, and the Midrash, rabbinic commentary, teaches that all of the souls of future generations of Jews were present at Sinai. That seems relatively egalitarian. Upon further thought, I realized that Ruth, the protagonist of our Shavuot narrative, embodied the marginalization that I was sensing and that Shavuot is an appropriate time to engage with the topic of exclusion.
Ruth is a woman, a widow, a convert, a penniless immigrant, and a Moabite (a different, hated race forbidden from entering the Jewish people). She is an outsider in every sense of the word. And yet, she is at the center of our Shavuot story, and at the core of the narrative of the Jewish people, as the great-grandmother of King David.
On many holidays, we focus on the ways that Jews were excluded, marginalized, and victimized by other cultures. On Hanukkah, we were oppressed by the Greeks. On Passover, we were enslaved by the Egyptians. On Tisha B’Av, we were victimized by the Babylonians and the Romans. All of these holidays memorialize times when Jews were marginalized as a nation. Ruth is notable because she was marginalized by the Jewish people. She was an outsider in the Jewish community. Yes, Ruth was ultimately a “success story.” She converted to Judaism, married Boaz, a wealthy and prominent land owner in the community, and gave birth to Oved, the grandfather of King David. She ultimately overcame these disadvantages and was accepted into our Jewish narrative as the great-grandmother of King David and the paradigm of chesed, loving kindness, and selflessness. However, we should not focus solely on the end of the story, to the exclusion of her other identity markers. The story of Ruth should remind us of the ways that the Jewish community is still segmented, and should serve as an opportunity for us to explore the way that our community treats other individuals within the Jewish community, those who are “Other” because of their gender, their race, their socioeconomic or religious background.
On Shavuot, we have the rare opportunity to sit with our communities and study texts into the wee hours of the night until daybreak. Tikkun Leil Shavuot is an alternate reality with ebbing and flowing cycles of intensity—caffeine buzzes, catnaps, sugar rushes, crashes after the first few cups of coffee and pieces of cheesecake wear off. It can be a dreamy time, learning underneath the stars, finishing up that final chevrutah as the birds start chirping and the sun rises, eagerly anticipating receiving the Torah anew, and imagining what our ideal Jewish community should look like.
We have the opportunity to examine the big questions: What does it mean to receive the Torah? How does the Torah impact us all differently? How do we engage with the more difficult, exclusionary aspects of the Torah and halakhah? How can we build a more inclusive community? A more committed community? How can we create a community that would welcome and accept Ruth, a community that values and encourages the equal contributions of women to our ritual community? How will the Torah help us build the Jewish world that we are craving?
This Shavuot, let’s embrace the opportunity to discuss those big questions, and explore ways to build the more equitable Jewish community that we crave. We could start by inviting more women to teach classes and address the congregation from the bima, including mothers’ names in ketubot and aliyot, offering more childcare options during prayers and classes, or simply welcoming everyone with a warm smile, and the question, “How would you like to participate in our community?”
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.