Last month, my daughter celebrated her Bat Mitzvah. In the months before her Bat Mitzvah we moved from the Boston-area Jewish community (where we had spent the past fourteen years) to Shepherd Park, Washington D.C and a day school my children had barely known existed. Following our move, planning a Bat Mitzvah was exactly what we all did not have time or energy for. Before our move, my daughter and I had studied some Mishnah together and participated in the Matan Bat Mitzvah program, so I considered suggesting that we just throw her a small party, opting out of the difficult process of defining and negotiating a meaningful Bat Mitzvah ritual for her. No sooner had I formalized the idea, when I realized that that was exactly what had happened to me when I was her age. My parents had offered to throw me, the youngest child and the only girl, a party of no religious significance for my Bat Mitzvah, and only if I really wanted it. I recognized the cue and had opted out. I had felt that loss. For me, the loss was realizing that my Bat Mitzvah was not Jewishly significant and that it need not be celebrated.
In stark contrast, my older son had studied with a local rabbi leading up to his Bar Mitzvah, learned to read Torah under his father’s tutelage, prepared and delivered divrei Torah, led the prayer service, and read Torah on the day of his Bar Mitzvah. He always expected to do those things; and we also expected them of him, and were so proud to fete him. I realized that my daughter, and all of our daughters, deserve the same high expectations and just as importantly, our admiration and celebration of their becoming members of our adult Jewish community.
My daughter and I, after much discussion and with the help of the Rabbi, the Maharat and my husband, navigated among the diverse and well thought out Bat Mitzvah options available in our Shepherd Park community. We decided to celebrate her Bat Mitzvah during a women’s mincha service on Shabbat afternoon where my daughter led the service, read from the Torah, and delivered a d’var Torah. Her service followed the regular mincha service at synagogue which meant that both men and women were present at the service, although only women were invited to actively participate. This allowed all of my husband’s large, non-Orthodox, family to attend, something which was very important to both my daughter and my husband’s family. It was celebratory and beautiful in every way, not the least of which was her grace and competence. But in planning this celebration, we realized that it would not have felt complete if we did not also celebrate her becoming part of our regular community. So we decided to celebrate on Shabbat morning as well.
I admit, when I was first asked if my daughter would deliver the d’var Torah in synagogue on Shabbat morning, I was ambivalent because there did not seem to be any meaningful space within the Shabbat morning service for her to mark the occasion of becoming a Bat Mitzvah. I realized though that we celebrate each baby joining our community and each boy becoming a Bar Mitzvah as a community, with singing and sometimes dancing. And so, on Shabbat morning, after the mi sheberach prayers, and before the Musaf service, my daughter stood and recited a special prayer that we had studied during the Matan mother-daughter Bat Mitzvah program. It marked her transition to becoming a full member of the community and asked God for guidance and help. Afterwards, my husband and I blessed her and the congregation broke out in song and dance – with all the women near the front of that section dancing around her and celebrating her entrance into the congregation. After the conclusion of the morning service, she delivered a d’var Torah to her and our whole community.
As my husband said, when he spoke following the mincha service that my daughter led so beautifully, we hope that the skills our daughter developed in preparation for her Bat Mitzvah – leading prayers, preparing divrei Torah, studying and reading Torah – are skills she will continue to hone as part of her continued Jewish growth. But as importantly, I hope that she can internalize the joy she witnessed as her community celebrated the significance of her becoming a Bat Mitzvah. Our daughters deserve that much.
Two years ago a number of parents in my community approached me for assistance. Their daughters would all become b’not mitzvah within the next year and they wanted to read from the Torah at their ceremonies. I offered to teach the girls and coordinate the services.
Our rabbi was not supportive of the Women’s Tefillah gatherings and he would not permit the families to borrow a Torah from the synagogue. Ultimately, I scrambled to call in a few favors and successfully acquired a scroll for each occasion.
The s’machot (celebrations) were all lovely. The bat mitzvah girls were mature, poised, gorgeous, and proved to all in attendance that they had learned well. But, my experience of getting the Torah scrolls was stressful. I wanted to find a way to make it easier for the next cohort of girls in our neighborhood. So, I approached JOFA about the possibility of storing a Torah to lend to those in need.
In May of last year, my dream became a reality with the inauguration of the Joan S. Meyers Torah Lending Program for the tri-state area. Thanks to the generosity of the Meyers and Lindenbaum families, individual women have free access to a Torah – for the bat mitzvah leyning at her Rosh Chodesh Tefillah, for the bride-to-be celebrating at her Shabbat Kallah, and for the new mother as she is called up to name her infant. We also provide communities with free access to a Torah – for the nascent partnership minyan hosting its first Shabbat morning service, and for groups of women who want to be able to touch, kiss, hold and dance with a Torah on Simchat Torah. A Torah for one and a Torah for all!
I take great pride in knowing that the Joan S. Meyers Torah Lending Program has reached its first anniversary. You can help extend the reaches of this program by getting the word out to family and friends. And when you borrow the JOFA Torah, please tell me about your experience! Did you teach a class for girls to learn how to chant the ta’amei hamikra (cantillation marks)? Did you call up a woman for her very first aliyah? Did you witness a woman recite Birkat haGomel with this Torah on the shulkhan (table)?
Though the Torah is housed at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, its true home is in its portable aron kodesh (holy ark). This Torah wants to take part in your milestones. This Torah wants to move from one place to the next. This Torah wants to join in relevant and meaningful celebrations. This Torah wants to make its home in your home.
If you’d like to borrow the Torah, fill out this form and someone will be in touch to discuss details.
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.