I didn’t mind the mechitzah at first. The wall—more frequently a short partition—separating men and women in ritual spaces was something to which I had grown accustomed in my long experience with traditional, Orthodox synagogues. Partnership minyanim were not a reality in my adolescent consciousness as I traversed the long road of a yeshiva day school student; but feelings of inequality, misogyny, and the limited opportunities for women to publically express their dedication to ritual Judaism grew increasingly prominent. Everything I did as a Jewish woman seemed to be in the context of a male experience, even within the walls of my all-girls high school. We learned Torah while the men learned Talmud, hailed male figures in Jewish history, dressed modestly to prevent men from succumbing to their basic instincts, and were shipped off to seminaries, whose names would feature prominently in conversations about our future shidduchim, marriage prospects. Halichos Bas Yisroel, a text filled with proverbial advice for young Jewish women, was to become the mainstay of our religious experience. And, because I had “lost” my copy, I wasn’t having it.
I remember the first time I received an aliyah. It was the summer of 2011. I was shocked when the female gabbai glanced my way as though I was a viable option for the position. When I heard my Hebrew name—Naomi bat Zev—being called, I murmured the most sincere shehechiyanu that I have ever said, gingerly approaching the scroll that I had been taught was off limits to me and my kind. This was a turning point for my religious practice, as I suddenly recalled a line from a famous Robert Frost poem, “Mending Wall”: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” And that something was me.
My distaste for exclusion from the action on the bima led me to partnership minyanim. Though most of these spaces still had me face to face with a mechitzah, I found so much comfort in the sound of a woman’s voice ringing through the pews of an Orthodox synagogue that the partition became less and less significant. I learned to chant from the Torah, properly singing the blessings and songs that I had tuned out for years when I was quarantined on the woman’s side. I needed to ensure that when I was called upon, I’d be ready. Women’s ritual expression electrified a room of worshippers who had grown tired of the silence of being an onlooker. In the past months and years, as partnership minyanim have become central to the media tug-of-war between the right and left factions of Orthodoxy, I balk at the notion that women are being kept from carving a meaningful space for themselves in some Orthodox synagogues. Sitting, as I often do on Saturday mornings, with my coffee and New Yorker, I can’t believe that rabbis would prefer that I be in the comfort of my apartment reading about Putin and Ukraine than leading pesukei de’zimrah (a portion of the prayer service that women are permitted to lead in partnership minyanim).
And yet, on most Shabbat mornings, I still find myself doing just that: waking up late and catching up on my reading. I realize, though I am loath to admit it, that partnership, and even fully egalitarian, minyanim just aren’t doing it for me. Though I will fight to the death for the right of these prayer spaces to exist, the actual experience of joining the tefillah has withered since that first aliyah I received on that Shabbat afternoon almost three years ago. I continue to want to be revved up by the feeling of my own voice in the Orthodox prayer space, but when I’m honest with myself, I need something more.
I found it completely by accident. When a colleague and friend approached me about a new synagogue starting in Washington Heights, his passion for creating an inclusive, alternative community drew me in almost immediately—even if it would mean giving up my Saturday morning coffee ritual. Beit Hamidrash Hagadol, a statuesque and historic synagogue that boasts being the oldest in Washington Heights, was the scene for this revival minyan, which we have loving taken to calling “the Beis.” As a motley crew geared up for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in the behemoth sanctuary of this synagogue, I found myself face to face with my old frenemy: the mechitzah. This time, however, I would not need to approach the bima for my voice to be heard.
Though women were not involved in leading the prayers at the Beis, a group of volunteers worked together to prepare explanations that they would share as an accompaniment to the Yom Kippur Avodah prayer service. Intermittently during prayer, a designated man or woman would interject his or her own kavanot, intentions, for people to ponder during a service that is seemingly endless and often monotonous. These words—spoken in English—provided inspiration, focus, and new perspectives on ancient texts for a community of individuals that ranged from secular to Orthodox. When I volunteered for this role, never having seen explanatory services done in this fashion, I had no idea how powerful and empowering it would be.
“During the next prayer, Aleinu, we bow our bodies so that they are prostrated fully on the ground,” I pronounced to the room of worshippers. The prayer leader’s voice floated behind my words as I grew louder, ensuring that both men and women could hear me from where I stood on the women’s side of the mechitzah. “Often, we find ourselves serving God with our hearts, connecting to God through deep emotions and spiritual experiences. Other times, we serve God with our minds, learning the laws and considering the existence of a Creator. Invariably, a hierarchy exists within us between the heart and the mind. Today, we have the opportunity to put our hearts and minds on the same level and serve God as a single being – with heart, mind, and body coming together in anticipation of welcoming His presence in our lives.”
As I bowed to the beautiful sound of the leader singing Aleinu, I didn’t feel out of place in the slightest. The curtain between the men and women disappeared as I took part in one of the most meaningful, innovative ritual experiences that I have had to date. Throughout the day, fellow worshippers thanked me for my contributions to their prayers. They really felt connected this year. And I did too.
Ritual inclusion for women is not merely about interpreting laws in a way that allows for women to occupy a place that is traditionally reserved for men. Rather, it’s about considering which experiences —both new and old—will be meaningful for both the men and women who come to synagogue to connect to God, eat the sponsored Kiddush food, and chat with friends. Full inclusion of women is allowing their physical presence, and their creativity, to enter into a traditionally male space.
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My youngest daughter will turn nine in just a few weeks, but I have already begun to actively arrange for her Bat Mitzvah. No, I have not bought her a fancy dress, shoes, and matching hair accessories. I have not put together a guest list of friends and relatives. And no, I have not actually looked at the calendar and chosen a date. So how could I possibly be preparing for her Bat Mitzvah?
In my hometown, the local Orthodox synagogues offer no opportunities for women to engage in ritual leadership. However, for the past few years, a warm and inviting women’s Kabbalat Shabbat/Ma’ariv Friday evening service has been held on a monthly basis in individual homes. Though my daughter is not always excited about going (especially if the weather is nasty or if she is caught up in a good book), I bring her along nonetheless. It is true that she does not yet know all of the tunes. And sometimes, she can only tolerate sitting through the first two psalms, “Yedid Nefesh” and “Lechu Neranena,” before she needs to take a break, returning mid-service for “Lecha Dodi.” But she is there, and the entrancing tunes of erev Shabbat are slowly filtering into her head.
Oftentimes, the prayer leader is a post-Bat Mitzvah teenager. It’s important that my daughter be present to see a young role model in action, to hear a high-pitched (and sometimes wavering) voice, and to witness a girl standing at the amud, podium. And each time we attend, I can see that my daughter participates more and more, that she is able to follow along, that her body sways with the chanting of each psalm, and that the unfamiliar is becoming familiar.
All too often, I hear the following refrain from mothers of sixth graders in my community: “I would really like my daughter to do something meaningful for her Bat Mitzvah—maybe lead at a women’s tefillah service—but she’s too nervous about it and it’s just not her thing.” My plea to each of those mothers is that you make it “her thing.” Start early and go often! Drag your third, fourth or fifth grader along to a women’s celebration this coming Simchat Torah! Remember: Your daughter won’t want to read from the Torah scroll if she’s never touched it, danced with it or peered inside. Or, shlep her to a women’s Megillah reading on Purim. And convince your friends to do the same, so that your daughter will have a cohort of peers to support her as she advances into new territory.
A boy may not begin to practice his Torah reading until the year before his Bar Mitzvah date. But he has been preparing for the event for years beforehand by being present in synagogue where he can absorb the rhythms, music and traditional words of the prayers, and be exposed to the routines of the service. Why should the expectations be different for a Bat Mitzvah girl? With the New Year, I urge you to make a commitment to your daughter and give her a head start!
I never could carry a tune but, at an early age, I discovered that I could make a soulful sound by blowing across a bottle top. Unfortunately, this set of talents did not equip me to read from the Torah or lead prayers in synagogue. While I learned to compose and deliver a dvar Torah, an active role as a spiritual leader via melody did not seem to be in the cards for me.
My capacity for making foghorn sounds with a bottle, did, however, translate into playing the flute in high school. Years later, I found that I could use the same embouchure to make sounds with a shofar. At first, I enjoyed picking up the shofar and blowing random blasts during the month of Elul. Then, when my community minyan Darkhei Noam opened auditions for female and male shofar sounders a few years ago, I decided to try out. I was given the honor of sounding the last set of kolot, blasts, after the Musaf service. I was invited to join the tradition of making a primordial sound from a ram’s horn that wakes up Jews from spiritual slumber, connects back to the Akeidah, the Sacrifice of Isaac, reminds us of the majesty and tragedy of Temple times, and evokes the sorrow of Sisera’s mother. Practicing tekiahs and shevarims took more effort than making arbitrary sounds, but yielded far more satisfaction. I learned how to think of my teruahs as three sets of triplets and prepare my breath for the tekiah gedolah. “Remember,” my coaches said, “If a Satan gets into your shofar and you can’t make a sound, just wait. Relax. You can’t force a shofar blast.”
My first year as a shofar sounder went off like a charm. The little children sat up on the stage to better see and hear the shofar. They looked at me with big, admiring eyes. I felt a special connection to the little girls on stage who seemed to sit up taller as my sounds came out strong and confident, lightly graced with a few humble quavers. My second year was a different story. A Satan found its way into my shofar. My first tekiah was more airy vibrato than anything else. And then…nothing. I forced breath into my shofar but no sound emerged. I waited. The little children pulled back their heads in surprise. Sweat beaded on my forehead and dripped down my nose. I tried again and mustered up some puny notes. After limping through the end of the blasts, I slunk to my seat and sat down, bathed in humiliation. Friends came over to comfort me, and surprisingly, to congratulate me for my effort. The next year, when for unrelated reasons I attended a different service, women from Darkhei Noam stopped me after Rosh Hashanah, telling me that they missed my shofar blowing.
This year I look forward to lifting a shofar to my lips again, at a small country community in Connecticut. I hope my sounds are strong and stir the souls of the congregation, but I know that sounding shofar is not a performance, but a prayer.
For more on the halakhot of shofar blowing, visit www.jofa.org/shofarguide
Every year at this time, from the second day of Rosh Chodesh Elul into Tishrei, my mind vaguely registers that the shofar is blown daily at the end of Shacharit services. Up until now, that same part of my mind shrugged as I said to myself, “Oh well, I have four kids to diaper, dress, feed and get off to school, slapping together sandwiches, tying shoes, and zipping up backpacks. Write this off as one of the time-bound specials.” Between my children’s apple and honey projects, and eighth grade lulav and etrog sales, and my menu planning and rummaging around for non-leather shoes, it wasn’t as if Elul passed me by. But the call of the shofar belonged exclusively to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and I always felt a little cheated when any of the festival days fell on Shabbat and we missed a day of shofar blasts.
This year the reminders came again — a d’var Torah here, an article there — including encouragement to learn to blow the shofar myself. Unless a woman works at a Jewish school and can participate in student services, chances are many women don’t hear the shofar blown before Rosh Hashanah. As a result, the do-it-yourself method has a certain appeal. Since Elul is a time to reassess, I did just that and realized that with changing circumstances, another option presented itself: go to synagogue.
It didn’t actually start with the shofar. My first thought was that this year I wanted to make more of an effort to mark Rosh Chodesh, so often glibly referred to as a “woman’s holiday,” and what better time to start than with Elul? I’ve never needed a second invitation to avoid laundry, but making an extra effort in my prayers seemed more challenging. With three children launched out of the house towards college and careers, I figured I could attend the early minyan and return home in time to greet my sleepy high school senior as she wafted down the stairs in search of breakfast. Attending synagogue a morning or two a month didn’t seem too onerous a commitment, and there was no one other than myself to call me to account if it didn’t work out.
Once I heard the shofar, I knew I had an opportunity to approach the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, with additional layers of meaning. I decided to extend my synagogue attendance beyond Rosh Chodesh. The daily shofar blasts are not just the echoes of ancient sound, but an immediate presence within prayer, an overture that we are privileged to hear at a specific time for a specific purpose. They tie us to the Children of Israel awaiting Moses’s descent from the mountain and to Moses himself who fasted forty long days and nights in preparation for receiving the second set of Tablets. In the here and now, the sound of the shofar carries through the rest of my day and makes me evaluate even the most superficially trivial choices.
Because I had stayed at home in the mornings for so many years, I did not know what to expect in synagogue. Did other women think that synagogue was the place to hear the shofar? Was there a community on the women’s side in the morning that I had never heard about? Did it matter? I belong to a relatively large congregation, and so far there have been two of us on the women’s side. I open my prayer book as a member of the entire community and not exclusively of the women’s side. I would be naive to think some thirty pairs of eyes don’t notice that a woman who is not saying Kaddish has started showing up regularly, but I am perfectly comfortable here. After all, these are my friends and neighbors with whom I am praying, and we are all doing our best to prepare for the Days of Awe which lie ahead. Gender really isn’t an issue. Synagogue is the right place to be, listening to the shofar together feels like the right thing to do, and I only wish more of us, both men and women, seized the moment. And I will admit to a certain pleasure at seeing the uncertainty in my daughter’s eyes upon my return: What is Mom up to now?
For more resources about women hearing and blowing shofar, visit www.jofa.org/shofarguide
Each shofar has a unique undulating shape and trumpeting sound. The sound may be low and haunting or bold and jarring. But whatever its call, the shofar awakens us from slumber and reminds us that the time for teshuva, repentance, has arrived.
During the Hebrew month of Elul, we blow the shofar on a daily basis at the conclusion of the morning service. This custom is derived from the Midrash that Moses ascended Mount Sinai at the beginning of Elul to receive the second set of tablets, having broken the first set when he witnessed the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf. While Moses was on the mountain, the Israelites blew the shofar on a daily basis to serve as a warning to the people to maintain their faith in God.
It is interesting to note that the Shulchan Aruch explicitly permits a woman to blow shofar for herself or for other women on Rosh Hashanah. But our rabbinic sources are silent on the issue of women blowing shofar during the month of Elul, leaving us to extrapolate for modern times. The Rema, Mishnah Berurah, and other halakhic authorities categorize blowing the shofar during Elul as a minhag, custom, rather than as an obligation. With these considerations in mind, a woman could blow shofar for herself or in the presence of other women during Elul to assist them in fulfilling the minhag. Alissa Thomas-Newborn, author of a forthcoming JOFA publication entitled, “A Cry from the Soul: Women and Hilkhot Shofar,” holds that a woman may indeed take on this role.*
Blowing a teki’ah (the long, solid blast) is not all that difficult. It takes some creative positioning of the mouth and hands, and some trial and error, but it can be mastered within a few minutes of effort. It is incredibly satisfying to put the shofar to your lips and produce a deafening blast. While the sound is energizing when it is merely heard, the call of the shofar is incredibly impactful when it draws from the energy deep within you.
Would you like to try it yourself?
The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, an agency of the Federation of Metrowest New Jersey, is hosting the Great Shofar Blowout on Sunday, September 21st in Whippany, NJ. In an attempt to break the Guinness World Record, 1500 participants will blow shofar in the same place at the same time! JOFA is co-sponsoring this historic event.
But before you can join in the Blowout, you may need to practice. JOFA will be hosting a workshop for women, men, and children who are interested in getting some practical experience; first-timers are welcome! The workshop will be enriched by a shiur, text-based class, which will review sources addressing the permissibility of women blowing shofar. I invite you to join me on Sunday, September 7 at the Mount Freedom Jewish Center in New Jersey, at 10 am, for this exciting event. Bring your personal shofar as you will want to learn the best technique for your instrument!
Rosh Chodesh Elul is almost upon us. The shofar calls out to me with a voice that is strong and unwavering. It is a call that has been heeded by countless generations each year at this time. This year, I will do more than just listen to that call. I intend to feed it with my own strength, my own will and my own breath. I will infuse the shofar call with my own hopes and desires for a fresh start in the New Year, for a greater level of commitment to God, to my people and to my community.
* Note: The issue of women blowing shofar for a mixed congregation, however, is more complex and requires intensive study of the sources; a synopsis is beyond the scope of this posting.
There were a couple of times when I said Kaddish in some unconventional or “unorthodox” circumstances, but they were quite meaningful to me, nevertheless. One of them was shortly after Shloshim, which is the first thirty days following the death of a loved one. Our family had the opportunity to spend a weekend at my husband’s sister’s beach house in New Jersey. There was no synagogue within walking distance. That Friday night I went up on their rooftop porch, as the sun was about to set. I had a most magnificent view of the horizon to my east, where the ocean met the sky, and to my west, where the glistening water of the bay met the sky. I prayed the Kabbalat Shabbat service with such kavanah, spiritual intention, and was so moved by that setting that I said the Kaddish aloud. There was no one to respond but, I felt such a strong connection to my mom at that moment. She’d grown up in a seashore town and just loved the ocean. Saying Kaddish for her there- just felt like the right thing to do in that moment.
Another nontraditional experience took place a couple of months after Mom died when I went out to Indianapolis, to visit my mom’s sole surviving sister. Aunt Lois had been unable to attend the funeral and the shiva, so I was grateful for the chance to visit with her and her family. And, I wanted so much to, just once, recite Kaddish with her. During my brief stay, they arranged for us to attend their Reconstructionist synagogue for a weekday Mincha/Ma’ariv service. It turned out that no one else showed up for minyan other than the five of us. I was the only one who was religiously observant in the group. They turned to me and said, “What shall we do now?” I said we could all pray the Mincha service together and then my aunt and I would recite Kaddish, even without the minyan. It was the one and only chance we had to do so, and I was determined to make it happen, even without a minyan. And, although, this was a highly irregular situation, it was comforting to say Kaddish with my aunt, with the other family members responding to our prayer.
It has been especially meaningful for me to be able to say the Mourner’s Kaddish at Netivot Shalom, my home synagogue in Baltimore, Maryland. On many occasions, my voice was the only one saying it. And yet, I felt that I was given the utmost of respect. Unfortunately, the same is not true for all women in all Orthodox synagogues. I can only speak for myself when I say that being a solo woman’s voice chanting this prayer amongst my congregation, gave me a feeling of empowerment and, at the same time, consolation. They enabled me, regardless, of who else was in the kehillah (congregation) at the time, to continue my healing process and my efforts of raising the soul of my beloved mother. I truly felt that each response of Amen, Brichu, blessed be He, and yehay shmay rabah mivorach, May His great name be blessed, acknowledged me in my grief and helped me in my mission to elevate my mother’s soul. Our ancient rabbis were very wise in how they constructed the Jewish mourning practices, recognizing the many psychological, emotional, and spiritual needs of the mourner. My friends, these needs are universal to all people. Therefore, it only makes sense to welcome and embrace a female mourner, just as well as a male mourner. And Netivot Shalom does that so very well.
One of my mom’s favorite Hebrew songs was Oseh Shalom. Sometimes when I say those words at the conclusion of Kaddish, I can faintly hear her voice singing them as well.
So, I’d like to conclude with those very same words. A request for peace from HaKadosh Baruch Hu:
Oseh Shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom, aleynu, v’al kol Yisroel, v’imru amen.
May He who makes peace in His high places, make peace for us and all Israel, and say: Amen.
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For nearly the past eleven months, I’ve been attending synagogue quite regularly, in order to say Kaddish for my late mother, Leah Zelda bat Yaakov Zeev Halayvi v’Rivka.
I once attended a presentation by Ari Goldman who spoke about his memoir, Living a Year of Kaddish, in which he describes some of the people he met and the experiences he had, throughout his year of mourning for his father. I was profoundly moved by the presentation and promptly read his book. I began to think of what it might be like for me to record some of my Kaddish experiences when my time comes. I had already decided that, while I hoped it wouldn’t happen until her 120th birthday, I would take it upon myself to say Kaddish for my mom.
When my dad died, nineteen years ago, we had three young children, I was working full time and, in the community where I lived, women just didn’t say Kaddish. Although my mother never asked me to recite Kaddish for her, it was something I wanted to do for me and for her. I viewed it as an opportunity to grow in my spirituality. You know, the recitation of Kaddish benefits both the soul of the departed loved one, as well as the mourner. After someone has died he or she can no longer get credit for performing mitzvot in this world; but those who survive them can perform mitzvot for the elevation of their soul.
The Kaddish prayer is one in which we affirm our belief and connection to God. Especially when someone is in mourning, it can be a comfort to remind oneself that Hashem is with them, even during this challenging time. Also, by having a structured daily time to think about my mom and reflect on the loss, it helped me in processing this journey. I am the kind of person who best deals with my emotions by confronting them and expressing them, rather than suppressing them. Saying Kaddish enabled me, on a daily basis, to connect with the new type of presence Mom has in my life. Often when I’d be saying Kaddish, I’d visualize one of my favorite photos of her. She’s standing on the beach, wearing a broad smile. Now, I’ll let you in on a secret. Earlier in the year, when I’d visualize that photo, it would be straight ahead of me, in my mind’s eye. As the months have gone by, that image has risen further up. To me, this is a sign that her soul is experiencing that elevation that I spoke of earlier. I sure hope so.
When my week of shiva ended, I had a conversation with Laura Frank, a knowledgeable friend, about some of the practices around women saying Kaddish. She said that many women who choose to say Kaddish, usually do so just once a day. Laura also pointed out that, if I attended synagogue for Mincha and Ma’ariv services, it would technically count as two days. For example, attending on a Wednesday, Mincha would be part of Wednesday’s prayers while Ma’ariv would be part of Thursday’s prayers. Now, my beloved mom was a smart shopper and always taught me to look for bargains. So, two for the price of one was a deal I couldn’t pass up. I’d also arranged with the rabbi from Mom’s synagogue in Miami to have someone in their minyan recite Kaddish daily for her. That way, I felt, there was always a backup for me, if or when I wasn’t able to get to synagogue.
When you’re not used to attending synagogue on a daily basis, there are many things to adjust to. Did you know that the pace of the daily services is a lot faster than on Shabbat morning? And most of the prayers are not said aloud or in unison? I had to find my comfort zone with which prayers I would say in their entirety and which I would skip, simply because I just couldn’t keep up, and yet I wanted to have a meaningful prayer experience. It was also quite an educational journey…. to go to synagogue daily for a year, and to become more aware of the variations in our prayers during this annual cycle. It was interesting to have to adjust my daily and weekly schedule according to the time of the setting of the sun, which, as you know, varies throughout the year. It’s pretty cool to have that element of nature govern the schedule of your busy day.
It’s amazing to look back and realize the very many things I learned in the course of my year of reciting Kaddish.
This post was adapted from a d’var torah Mindy delivered at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Baltimore, MD on May 31, 2014, just prior to the conclusion of the Kaddish year for her departed mother. Part two will be published next week.
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This is the second post in a two-part series of blog posts written by high school students. We encourage you to engage in constructive conversation with the authors around these posts. Read the first post here.
Each morning, my first destination is my living room. I take out my siddur and tefillin (unless it’s Shabbat, of course) and I pray the Shacharit service as my family bustles around. As I finish, I swap out my tefillin and siddur for a gemara to study. My day continues on, and between my chavrutas—studying with friends—and teaching at Hebrew school, my Jewish practices are hardly put aside. Meals are symbolized in both start and finish with blessings, and the chunks of the day are split up by my recitation of Mincha and Ma’ariv.
Somehow, because of these practices, I am “not Orthodox.”
The fact is: I am Orthodox.
Yet, I’m living in a paradox. When I say I want to daven (pray) more, I’m considered less religious. I take on more practices, suddenly, I’m less religious. I want a leadership role in my community’s prayer, I’m less worthy of actually being in my community. This attempt to purify the Orthodox community from people who practice differently—or rather, different people who practice—isn’t going to work. When we do this, we’re simply shutting doors on people who are committed to and in love with Judaism. Pushing me out won’t fix the problems, won’t stop the questions; it will merely slow down the process of change.
The problem is that the Orthodox community no longer defines itself as a group of people who are committed to Judaism. Rather, it is a group of people who are committed to a particular version of Judaism—a gendered Judaism. I believe it is time for a new paradigm of commitment to mitzvot, and a new paradigm for Orthodox Judaism.
Mitzvot are Mitzvot
Gender is not prescriptive of the ways that a person connects to religion. There is no such thing as male spirituality or female spirituality. Some women want to lay tefillin while some men don’t; some women want to be religious leaders while some men don’t. As an Orthodox community, we can either push away the women deeply committed to mitzvot on account of gender roles, or push away the gender roles on account of a deep commitment to mitzvot. I recommend the latter.
Mitzvot are mitzvot, and people who keep them are observant Jews. Do I believe that everyone (who takes on halakhic obligation) is equally obligated in tefillin regardless of their gender identity? Yes. But we shouldn’t try to build a community based on forcing people to perform mitzvot out of obligation; we should build a community of people who perform mitzvot out of commitment—out of acceptance of obligation. Of the male peers I know that pray every day, an absurdly low percentage care about it—yet they do it because they are told they must. Forcing all boys to keep mitzvot and coercing all girls not to generally results in resentment on both ends.
But somehow, that’s what it has come to. We’ve decided it’s better—for the sake of tradition—to build our foundations on boys who wish they didn’t have to go to minyan and girls who wished someone would ask them to. If, instead, we didn’t ask anyone to come to minyan, and merely counted on having enough interested members of our community commit to be there, I believe we would not only be able to maintain a minyan but it would be a happier one than ours is now.
Bringing In, Not Pushing Away
For those of you who are thinking, “But we have communities that are egalitarian and halakhic, why does Orthodoxy need to budge?” I have a simple question. What would happen if halakhic egalitarian communities started calling themselves Orthodox? If they simply pointed out that they are observant in every way that observance matters to us—merely disregarding gender and gender roles—and they are therefore still Orthodox, we would be a larger Orthodox community. If every time someone interprets halakha—not disregarding, but understanding it in a new light—we bring in rather than push away, the vibrancy of the Orthodox community can remain strong.
It would be simpler for me to stop calling myself Orthodox because it would mean I could do what I want. I could have an easy pass to interpret halakha any way I want. To anyone who argues with me I would simply say “I’m not one of you.” But I am. I’m an involved, committed, interested Jew and that’s about as you, Orthodoxy, as I can get. Even though it would be easier to take myself out—away from a place that judges and resents me—I don’t. If I let Orthodoxy’s inertia win, then in ten years, when my sister struggles with the same feelings of religious pride and fear of abandonment, I will have done her no good. I will have opened a door that closes right behind me as soon as I walk out through it. I have told her that she must either blend in or bow out, but she cannot be a red flower in a field of white. There is no value for the Orthodox to keep pushing away those who care about it—so I’m going to take the fact that I don’t budge easily and use it to keep having hard conversations. I’m going to keep bringing up difficult subjects, and I’m going to keep looking for answers. And every time I am pushed aside, my questions ignored or my answers rejected, I will still be just as much of an Orthodox Jew. It’s not just about affiliation, it’s about community. I am halakhically egalitarian and communally Orthodox—that needs to be a legitimate option.
I’m not going to stop praying. I’m not going to stop observing halakha. I’m not going to stop having pride in my religion. The question is whether or not you’re going to support me.
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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?”