Two summers ago I was having a relaxed conversation with Judy Heicklen, the president of JOFA. She mentioned to me that JOFA decided to upgrade its old Megillat Esther CD to a user-friendly, interactive smartphone app. I particularly liked that they wanted to use a single voice for all the chapters and that it would be built as a tool for learning how to leyn.
“Of course,” she said, “we’ll need someone whose voice is easy to follow and who will be precise and consistent in her recordings.”
“Yup, I agree.”
Then the kicker: “So we thought of asking you.”
I was blown away. Me? JOFA was asking me to record the whole Megillah? Wow!
I learned to leyn over ten years ago. Previously, in my secular, hi-tech world I found moments of spirituality in Shabbat and chagim (holidays), and in taking an active role in my synagogue, going to shiurim (classes), and giving divrei Torah. But when I learned how to leyn, it filled empty spaces in my soul.
After months of practicing every night and loving the involvement in something so intensely Jewish, the leyning course ended. But I didn’t want to step away from this spiritual experience!
I had heard stories about Esther Farber A”H who taught many, many girls to read for their Bat Mitzvah. Her sons Steven and Seth told me they couldn’t remember a Shabbat without a girl coming to practice her leyning. Stories about Esther shone a light on the path I wanted to take: sharing my passion by teaching others.
In an incredible twist of events, my first student was Esther’s granddaughter Eliana. Sadly, Esther passed away only a few months before Eliana’s Bat Mitzvah. They had been studying together in the pre-Skype era through video-conferencing and they hadn’t quite finished. When Eliana heard my story, she chose to finish her learning with me. Although I had never met Esther, it somehow felt like she was giving me her blessing by passing the baton on to me.
Slowly I became identified as a “go-to” woman for issues connected with leyning, davening (praying) and Bat Mitzvah celebrations. I felt my involvement deepen and broaden: I ran a weekly Torah leyning class for women at my dining room table. I learned the trop for megillot Ruth, Eicha (Lamentations), and Esther. One exhilarating Purim I read Esther in front of five hundred women and girls! I thought that I had reached my personal pinnacle, and yet, to my delight, there was even more waiting just around the corner.
So here was Judy’s offer and my heart was beating fast as I considered it. Did I have time to record the whole thing? No! Could I possibly turn it down? No way! God gives each of us special gifts. It is our responsibility to use these gifts to give back to the world and make it a better place.
I turned my study into a mini-recording studio, lining the walls with cardboard and packing material to absorb the echo. I upgraded my microphone and created a makeshift stand on a tissue box – just the right height and distance from my mouth. The app required countless hours of recording, listening, re-recording. My gentle yet exacting editors taught me to be extremely consistent and did not allow for any sloppiness in the pronunciation or the tune. My husband said that he heard more Megillat Esther during those months than he ever wanted to hear in his entire life!
The app is truly an all-in-one guide. Its interface is so easy to follow that I continue to use it myself when I practice (think: follow the bouncing ball). It’s also great when listening to the Megillah – just make sure the voice is turned off! I was delighted to find JOFA hadn’t stopped there. There are extra articles on the app about Halakha, tips on how to organize a reading, and more.
Recording the app required a lot of time and hard work. Yet the memory of all that melted away when men and women excitedly told me how they learned to leyn the Megillah using only the app! How amazing for me to go from teaching one-on-one to touching the souls of so many. Countless people have said to me: “I’ve been listening to your voice for the last two months. This app enabled me to realize my dream to read the Megillah on Purim.”
This past December I was honored to lead an introductory leyning workshop at the international JOFA conference. Leyning In has been an extraordinary journey of passion and connection with my Jewish roots and my soul. I invite you to come along with me.
Reading the Torah has always fascinated me. I grew up in a home of leyners (readers of Torah, traditionally men) and I loved nothing more than the “gossip” surrounding synagogue on Shabbat. Who had an aliyah? Why was there a hosafa (an extra aliyah, usually to accommodate a celebration or yahrtzeit)? Why did we read a special maftir?
When my three brothers came close to their bar mitzvah age, they learned how to read from the Torah. I was so fascinated that I had them teach me the trop (cantillation), but they soon tired of it, as did I. I didn’t see much point as I wasn’t able to do anything with the trop anyway.
Over the years, nothing really changed. I still loved listening to the Torah leyning; I still followed along closely with all the readings and different tunes. But the knowledge itself remained in a secret garden, one that I only saw bits of as I peeked over the hedge.
Then – one day – someone opened a door to this secret garden. Judy Rosen organized a course for women in ta’amei hamikra (cantillation marks). I heard about it and thought: “Me? Learn now? Hey – I’m over forty!” And on the heels of that came another thought: “If Rabbi Akiva could learn to read Hebrew at age forty – well – I can do this too.” I didn’t know what I would do with that knowledge but I felt it touch a chord deep inside.
Signing up for that course was one of the best decisions that I ever made.
From the very first lesson, I was totally hooked. I’d stay up at night until the wee hours practicing each new set of ta’amim (tunes) that Judy taught us. In fact, I had to force myself to finish everything else that I needed to do first or I simply wouldn’t get to them. Practicing my leyning was my reward after all else was done.
At around this time, a women’s prayer group started in Ra’anana. After a few months, Judy pronounced us “ready” to read an aliyah. I was petrified. Me, ready? What if I made a mistake? What if I froze? But I couldn’t resist the siren’s call. I practiced that aliyah over and over. There was one particularly complex pasuk (verse) that I just couldn’t get right and worried over it aloud to my husband. He laughed and said: “Those are the psukim that leyners dream about.” That was all I needed to hear – I wanted to be one of those leyners too! And I learned that it’s okay to make a mistake, God knows we aren’t perfect.
Reading from a Sefer Torah (Torah scroll) for the first time was an incredible experience for me. I was full of awe, apprehension and excitement. Standing so close to our holiest object, I felt honored and moved. This was truly a rite of passage for me. Everyone disappeared except me, the Sefer Torah and God.
I was thrilled to have learned to leyn and walk around that garden freely. What I didn’t know was that just beyond were many more gardens that unfolded and unlocked before me– teaching leyning, giving divrei Torah, leading davening and acting as gaba’it in a partnership minyan. Each one was a step on a path I had not taken before. Each step required taking a deep breath and placing my foot forward, at first hesitantly, then more firmly. Each time I embraced a new skill it gifted me with new insight and deepened my connection to God.
This is what has happened to me. Each garden that I enter uncovers a truer and more honest me. Over ten years have passed since that first Torah leyning class and today I am a full-time student at Yeshivat Maharat.
When you find something that fills you with passion and makes you happy – grab it. It may change your life in the most unexpected ways.
Reading megillah is a great way to enter the secret garden of leyning. Check out JOFA’s Megillat Esther app!
A new partnership minyan was recently formed in Hampstead in North-West London. Here, two of the founders, Beverly Paris and Dr. Miri Freud-Kandel, provide some insights into what made the first meeting such a success. The next minyan is planned for Chanuka — details can be found here. To sign up for the JOFA partnership minyan Googlegroup, click here.
“It was lovely to hear so many women’s voices”
1 x Sefer Torah
50 x folding chairs (begged, borrowed & not quite stolen)
1 x large family living room graciously shared
70+ people aged 6 months – 70 years
100 x donuts, pastries & very fine coffee
Boundless energy & tremendous good will
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.