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.
This past Simchat Torah, my mother began planning her synagogue’s first women’s mincha, afternoon service. She was inspired by the joy of the Simchat Torah women’s reading, and wanted to extend it to a regular Shabbat. So she worked with some young women in the community to make it happen, and brought women who might never have prayed or connected as a community to a mincha service.
She recently wrote, in The Torch, that she needs to effect change because of us, her daughters, my sisters and me. It is true that we “struggle fiercely with the dissonance between our place in the religious sphere and our ability to lead in the outside world.” Outside of the Jewish community, we have power. Power to shape the discourse around us, to assume leadership, to practice the rituals of our professions and of our communities of common values without anyone questioning whether our very engagement undermines our belongingness. Outside of the Jewish community, I can use every talent in my arsenal to make this world a better place–voice, humor, and compassion are welcome–whereas the Jewish community polices them under the titles of “modesty,” “tradition,” and “careful halakhic process.”
But Ima, it’s not “hard for me to hang onto my Judaism.” I was brought up by a role model who showed me its beauty and worth in every action; to leave is unthinkable. The struggle lies in making Judaism, which was not written for me, as much of a conduit for contribution and action as the rest of my life—to live it, not simply to be it. To live it, like you do.
Ima, it is women like you, not me, who will change Judaism. It is women like you, women who are joyous with their lot and excited to find they can do something more, who will bring Orthodox Judaism slowly but surely into the twentieth century (their great-granddaughters may bring it into the twenty-first). I, for whom a gag reflex is triggered when a well-meaning man tells me, “of course women can do that,” can no longer abide being in the same room as a discussion about whether women can or cannot celebrate some aspect of their religion in public. It’s my religion—how dare they imagine that they have control over it?
And the thing is, I grew up without bitterness. It took two years of midrasha, seminary, three years in college, and a lot of investigation into the halakhic process, to bring me to the polite distance I keep from the Jewish community today. My withdrawal from community means, to me, that I can have no say, no power, in how it develops. Seven years before this, I was leading the first women’s mincha services at my university, giving shiurim, classes, and fighting for women’s active role in the community. Now, nearly a decade later, I am tired of the constant internal struggle and cognitive dissonance. Like so many of my more perceptive and high-powered female friends, I have withdrawn to pursue leadership in other fields.
But it’s a withdrawal that has allowed me to keep my joy in Judaism. To celebrate it personally, through tefillah and learning and observing kashrut and Shabbat, through my private conversations with God and considerations of how to act and what to say. Eventually, I will find a community driven by the same impulses that drive me, and then I will again begin to contribute and be part of a community. Until then, I will enjoy the brief simple delight of reading Torah on Simchat Torah in my mother’s synagogue, quietly celebrate my religion on my own terms, in my own private space, and repeat over and over the lines of the Shabbat service, which, in my mind, represent the religious feminist’s creed:
Tayn chelkaynu b’Toratecha v’taher leebaynu l’avdecha b’emet.
Give us a portion of Your Torah and purify our hearts to do Your work with integrity.
This past Shabbat as I walked to synagogue for mincha, afternoon services, I was thinking about how I would introduce our first ever complete women’s tefillah, prayer group. With the strong and thoughtful support of our rabbi, our synagogue hosts a women’s Torah reading on Simchat Torah, women’s megillah reading on Purim day, and hoshanot for women on Sukkot. However, we have never prayed together through a full prayer service. This year, we chose to add a women’s tefillah service for Shabbat mincha to our women’s programming, in order to create an opportunity for many women to actively participate in the service, without putting too much stress on our inexperienced Torah readers. In addition, we do not want to separate ourselves from the congregation and since few women typically show up in our synagogue for mincha, a women’s tefillah service would not affect the community negatively.
The prayer service was beautiful. Three teenagers delivered short divrei Torah between aliyot. Women read Torah, led prayers, and served as gabbaiot for the first time. One of our Torah readers had a baby in a front carrier, and a little girl holding her hand. The sound of women’s voices lifted in song, especially the voices of the young girls who led Anim Zmirot at the end (we added it in, why not?), was different and joyful. One of my friends, who attended just because she is my friend and not because she was particularly interested, spoke about how spiritually uplifted she felt. Another spoke of the impact of seeing all these women walking to synagogue for mincha, so different from the usual all-male parade.
What was accomplished by a single women’s tefillah service?
- The mitzvah of praying mincha was observed by women, most of whom would not have prayed on their own.
- Women’s tefillah became a little more accepted in our community.
- We were able to honor our synagogue president with an Aliyah LaTorah.
- Women had the opportunity to lead a prayer service.
- Girls realized that they could participate, not just spectate.
- Women connected together as a community.
- Women, who rarely, if ever, arrive on time for shacharit on Shabbat, were present throughout the service.
A single event does not change a community. Nor will its modesty sway those who think that we are radicals. But I have found that, over time, the response to a women’s service shifts from “No way,” to “It’s okay for you, but it’s not my thing,” to “Maybe I’ll come,” to attending a women’s tefillah, to accepting an aliyah, to “Can I read next time?”
My three young adult daughters, although committed to a halakhic life, struggle fiercely with the dissonance between their place in the religious sphere and their ability to lead in the outside world. It is painful for me to see how hard it is for them to hang on to the Judaism that forms such a huge framework for their lives. I think if I allowed myself to feel as they do, I would break. I am awed by the strength of their commitment to a Judaism that makes them feel less valued and more like second class citizens. And so I must effect change, incrementally slow as it may be, so I can have hope for a religion that will give all of us a portion in God’s Torah.
I didn’t mind the mechitza 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 mechitza, 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 mechitza. 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 mechitza. “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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As I flick through the pages of my pocket prayer book deliberating over which tunes to pick for Lecha Dodi at this week’s local Partnership Minyan, two thoughts distract me. Firstly: I sincerely hope the clatter of the Jubilee Line train at rush hour is drowning out my occasional involuntary audible humming. Secondly (and slightly more profoundly): is this how diligent bar-mitzvah boys use their commute to school to cram in practice in the run up to the big day?
Quite apart from the momentary humour involved in imagining my thirty-something self sharing the same experiences as a thirteen year old boy, the latter thought is, for me, imbued with both sadness and excitement. Sadness, or perhaps more accurately, regret, at lost opportunities—crucially, lost education. But more importantly, it serves as a reminder of quite how far the role of women in Modern Orthodoxy has progressed in the UK in the last few years. Here I was, preparing to lead a Kabbalat Shabbat Service in an Orthodox setting—my skills no longer only of use in the ‘grassroots’ minyanim where I will forever be indebted to those (of both genders) who shared their knowledge with me.
In addition to spurring activism, one of JOFA’s main achievements in the last year has been the visibility it has bestowed upon the whole debate on women’s participation in Modern Orthodoxy. Last year’s JOFA UK conference shifted the conversation from the fringes to the mainstream, and whilst there remain divisions and frustrations on all sides—especially regarding the pace of change —there is immense value in the dialogue itself. In particular, there is value in hearing the unexpected voices, for example, those women who actually feel uncomfortable in close proximity to a Torah, an inevitable consequence of their lifetimes’ physical separation from this sacred scroll.
So, to what should we aspire in the year to come? For me, top of the list is acceptance from those who would prefer to maintain the status quo—their understanding that this is not an exercise in pushing boundaries; rather, it is about tearing down unnecessary fences (and fences around fences). It is about Jewish women reclaiming our heritage – not for the sake of doing the same as men, but because living an enriching life of Torah should not be unduly limited or defined by gender.
After that small request, comes the tachlis, the practical steps—where appropriate, share your skill set with others! Many of us are part of a ‘lost generation’ of women, enthusiastic to learn, but deprived of education in our youth… One thing is for sure, male or female, it’s an exciting time to be a Modern Orthodox Jew!
Join hundreds of women and men this Sunday (22 June) at the Second Annual JOFA UK Conference. Click here to register.
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The story of Esther teaches us many things, amongst them, that timing is everything.
This year, the women’s Megillat Esther reading in Sydney, Australia marks its fifteenth year! We began in a private home with about thirty women. As the years went on and our numbers grew, we read the Megillah each year in various communal halls in Sydney. In 2013, for the very first time, we held our women’s Megillah reading in the main sanctuary of a Modern Orthodox synagogue! Over 25 women read from the Megillah for a total of 110 women in attendance.
This year we will have more women reading than ever before and, please God, a record number of women attending in celebration.
What can we, a group of women who have been gathering to read the Megillah for fifteen years, learn from the story of Esther? When we are looking for Hashem’s hand in Jewish history, we must take a long-term perspective.
The story of Esther seems like an unlikely, outrageous chain of events that follow one after another. During the course of the hour-long reading, the Jews go from the verge of annihilation to miraculous redemption. The events seem to occur in immediate succession, but actually Achashverosh ascended the throne a full twelve years before Mordechai and Esther step up and consolidate their political power.
In our twelfth year of reading Megillah – our “Bat Mitzvah” year – we gathered in a hall at the oldest and largest Modern Orthodox Jewish Day School in Sydney. It took some discussion, but we successfully gained permission from the rabbi of the school to hold the reading on the premises.
A young woman’s Bat Mitzvah is the point in her life when she enters adulthood and assumes responsibility for her own spirituality. As a consequence, the community takes her seriously. And so it was with our women’s Megillah reading. Our Bat Mitzvah year was a turning point – it was the year that the mainstream Orthodox community began to “take us seriously.”
We were excited to be in this new phase. Since then, we have gone from strength to strength. In year thirteen, we held two readings: The first was in the Jewish Day School, at which some of the readers were students of the school and the attendees included female students and teachers. For many women, this was the first time they had even heard of a women’s Megillah reading. The second reading that morning was held in the hall of a Modern Orthodox synagogue. Last year, we read the Megillah inside the sanctuary of that same synagogue. We are grateful to be meeting in the main sanctuary again this year.
We have followed the example of Queen Esther in working with some of the Modern Orthodox rabbis in our city: we ask for what we want, respectfully, assertively, and persistently. In this way, we have been able to grow and inspire more women to become involved.
A women’s Megillah reading celebrates Jewish women as the source of redemption and continuity. We hope that through our reading we can pass on to our daughters and to the next generation, our passion and enthusiasm for the story of Esther, our enhanced connection with the festival of Purim and the text of the Megillah and our love for and commitment to Judaism.