Empowering Bat Mitzvah Girls

my own bat mitzvah

A few years ago my family was living in Israel and attending a synagogue near our home. One Shabbat, our four year old daughter came running up to me in tears. Apparently she was not allowed on the bima, podium, with her big brother and his friends. Why? Because she was a girl, of course. I was amazed that she should be exposed to such blatant discrimination at four! I immediately vented to our rabbi friend with whom I regularly studied. How could we allow our daughter to feel so excluded? What would we do about her Bat Mitzvah? How was I to explain to her that she couldn’t read from the Torah in front of men? Her Bat Mitzvah would be just a few months after her brother’s Bar Mitzvah and the juxtaposition would be so blatant!

When I was slightly less hysterical, our rabbi gently asked me to remind him how old our daughter was. “Um, four.” “Right,” he responded, “you have a few years to figure it out before panicking!” He also offered me some other crucial advice: “Don’t try to emulate the Bar Mitzvah ceremony just for the sake of it. There are lots of things wrong with Bar Mitzvahs. If you want to make the Bat Mitzvah ceremony meaningful. Go back to first principles. Think of ways to make a coming-of-age milestone meaningful.”  So that is what I did.

My own Bat Mitzvah didn’t serve to inspire me, in spite of my reading the entire Torah portion (it being in a Reform synagogue). My overriding memory of it was beaming at my friends from the bima with my sparkling braces. And being forewarned by my sister not to giggle when blessed by the rabbi. I did. It was not exactly the meaningful ceremony I was hoping for our daughter.

Around that time, a cousin of mine was about to have her Bat Mitzvah. Relative to her secular upbringing, I was practically Lubavitch in my level of frumness. The plan was to have a party and her mother asked me how we could add a bit of Jewishness. So I prepared some questions and found a couple of quotations. Included were questions to ask her grandparents about their Jewish life, about Jewish foods and jokes and stories. I printed them out and literally cut and pasted them into a scrapbook. Very badly. We sat together a few times before her celebration and discussed some of the questions and read through Megillat Ruth as it was around the time of Shavuot. And when her party came round, she gave a beautiful d’var torah.

Fortunately, soon after, I met Juliet Simmons who would save me from having to cut and paste for the rest of my life.

Juliet also felt passionately about creating something beautiful and meaningful for Jewish girls.  She’d had a “typical” London Bat Mitzvah – speaking on the bima on a Sunday afternoon with about six other girls, but it wasn’t until she was much older that she’d discovered bits about being Jewish that she’d really loved – and met inspiring Jewish women.  We both felt that it was time to speak to the Jewish women who had inspired us as adults and share that inspiration (and that love of all things Jewish) with younger women and girls – why should they have to wait??! Juliet and I both found ourselves enthused with the idea of creating something that was magical and accessible and that would enhance this special time of coming-of-age for girls. And so began a process that took two years of research, meetings, discussions, brain storming and lots of tea and toast, and that eventually led to the creation of My Own Bat Mitzvah Book.

The book seeks to serve as a dialogue between the girls and their tradition. There are fourteen chapters written by different women, each exploring different facets of Judaism, from the concept of time in Judaism, to thinking about Shabbat, to contemporary Jewish culture. Each chapter affords the girls an opportunity to complete activities frequently involving interaction with family members. It is meant as a journey towards a milestone event as well as a keepsake for future generations.

We tapped into twenty extraordinary women, with very different backgrounds from across the globe, across denominations, and across cultures. We couldn’t have wished for a more diverse group–rebbetzins, educators, rock stars, peace activists, mothers, cooks, artists, comedians. By involving so many women, we hoped to breakdown stereotypes about what it means to be a “good Jewish woman,” and show that there are many paths to live a passionate and engaged Jewish life.

The book is interactive, in order to make the girls feel as though they are the next link in a beautiful and ancient chain of tradition. We want them to feel that they are a part of the Jewish conversation and are empowered to impact on what the religion is today. We very deliberately did not want to be prescriptive but at the same time we have kept it as halakhically on track as possible. As one of our contributors said: “It is deeply rooted in Jewish text and tradition but it also has a very introspective almost soul searching approach, inviting young girls to think about themselves in relation to themselves, their community, their God, and the world at large as they come of age.”

For me, the most meaningful chapter is the one called Making Laws your own. Even with a legal background, I know how intimidating Jewish law and text-based study can be and so we really wanted to break it down so that the girls can have a sense of the legal process and how laws change. In the book, we replicated a Talmud page and included explanations about the different commentaries around the page. We even highlighted the point that we are all part of the Jewish story by creating an open space for the girls to write their own commentary and add their own voices. After all, Judaism is a religion based in innovation!

Adolescent years are not easy, especially for girls wading through all of the conflicting messages from the media and our society. But Judaism has recognised that this is a time to be introspective, to think about ourselves, our role in relation to the rest of the world, to examine our identities and to draw on the role models around us. We hope the book helps to empower girls to figure out their own paths, not just through Judaism, but through becoming a woman.

I’m hoping that when it is my daughter’s time to become a Bat Mitzvah, she won’t have to be worried about whether she’s allowed to stand on the bima, and that she feels empowered to make choices about how to celebrate her own Jewishness and her identity as a woman.

And perhaps it will be my son complaining that it is unfair, that a keepsake Bar Mitzvah book doesn’t exist for him.

Posted on July 1, 2015

We’re Here, We’re Queer, We Made Cholent!

Screenshot 2015-06-22 10.51.38

[A digital rendering of this originally hand-written epistolary blog post can be found here.]

June 19, 2015

Hello and Happy Pride Month!

I write to you by hand because, like my fellow millennials, I love new things that feel like old things. We build “upcycled” shelves out of reclaimed driftwood. We use smartphone apps to make our cell phone photos look like Polaroids. Record players are back in vogue. A scribbled letter is my favorite way to soften cold digital words into something cozy and human. I’m a queer-identified, frum-identified Jew in a complicated relationship with Orthodoxy, and I want to tell you about my community.

I moved to Washington Heights, in Manhattan, in September because a kallah, a bride, gave me a blessing and told me to. At the time I had already decided to move to New York, but was leaning toward Brooklyn. At a dinner hosted by some Yiddishists in the Heights to honor Yudis and her new wife, Yocheved, Yudis was floating on a post-wedding spiritual high. I asked her for a blessing.Screenshot 2015-06-22 10.55.41

Me: Yudis, would you give me a bracha?
Yudis: Absolutely. I have the perfect one.

[We scurry off to a quiet room.]

Yudis: I want to bless you with the strength to give yourself the things you need to be happy and healthy. If you want a world where you can be queer and also frum, there is no question that it’s Washington Heights. You won’t need to sacrifice either one.

Because guess what? Washington Heights is not only home to Yeshiva University, nucleus of the capital “M” Modern Orthodox world. Over the past five years the neighborhood has become a hub for a relatively large community of halakhically observant lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and queer Jews. In a world where most Orthodox LGBTQ Jews are isolated and fear they might be alone in their painful identity balance, this special intergenerational group of Jews has flourished.

My sense is that we exist largely because of Eshel, a new group which has helped so many of us find each other, connect, and discover how powerful and awesome we are. Dedicated to creating community and acceptance for LGBTQ Jews and their families within Orthodox spaces, Eshel is at the helm of steering big change. In just five years, Eshel has hosted local and national gatherings, building a network of over 1,000 queer Jews, allies, and families. Eshel offers much needed support to Orthodox parents with LGBTQ children, and sponsors “Merchav Batuach,” a new “safe space” seminar for Orthodox college students. For me and my parents, Eshel has been a life raft.

We exist, and people are starting to notice.

Several months ago a Modern Orthodox rabbi invited LGBTQ Jews in his community to sit down for a private conversation. Eleven of us squeezed into a tiny room and the rabbi, admitting his nervousness, listened carefully as we took turns sharing our experiences of fear and alienation within the Orthodox world.

One of the most powerful stories came from a friend, “Moshe,” who revealed his true self to the rabbi. As he spoke, I sensed his fear that publicly revealing he was gay might mean losing his place as a trusted member of the community. Moshe shared the pain of watching passively as community members celebrated life cycle events. With each engagement, wedding, and then bris and bar mitzvah, his peers progressed within the community while he remained single and static. As queer Jews in the mainstream Orthodox world move toward building Jewish families, they know that their life cycle events will not be celebrated with a kiddush. Instead, an engagement, bris, or bar mitzvah is a risk of communal estrangement.

Even without a place for me within institutional Orthodoxy, I have been blessed with a safe space in Washington Heights among frum queer peers and straight allies. At Yudis and Yocheved’s wedding, yeshiva day school alumni and Orthodox rabbinical students danced alongside gay Yiddish speakers and their ex-Chasidish friends. When the couple announced their engagement, over a hundred people smushed into an apartment in the Heights (!) to sing and dance and drink l’chaims.

Screenshot 2015-06-22 10.57.04To live as an Orthodox Jew and cope with the challenges of halakhic minutiae requires both a nurturing community and trusted leadership. Miraculously, I have found a Jewish community where I feel like I fit. But as I struggle with an ever-growing pile of questions I can’t ask, my relationship with Orthodoxy becomes increasingly fragile. I seem to be off “The” Derech, (path) and am struggling to pave my own.

If you are a maharat (Orthodox female spiritual leader), a rabbi, a synagogue president, a teacher, or just a friend who wants to extend support to me and my neighbors within your Orthodox communities, you’ll need to start by knowing the barriers and questions that keep us on the fringes.

Here are a few of my own:

  • If I brought a girlfriend to synagogue, and we sat on the same side of the mechitza, should we sit far away from each other?
  • Can a gay-identified kohen have an aliyah or perform Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing?
  • Are there any spiritual or halakhic teachings that speak to the relationship between a non-biological parent and their child?
  • If I bring a friend to synagogue who does not fit neatly into a gender category, where should they sit?
  • In a same-sex relationship where shmirat negiah, the prohibition on touching, is not technically obligatory, are there any practices reflecting the spirit of the mitzvah that might be worth adopting?
  • How can we create traditionally rooted ceremonies to mark a commitment to one’s partner where no such framework exists?

You don’t need to have the answers yet. We certainly don’t.

In the joyous spirit of this month, I proudly (ha ha) invite you to celebrate with me and my community af simkhes, on happy occasions, or even just for Shabbat lunch. See you in the Heights!

Be well,
Leana

Screenshot 2015-06-22 10.58.10

 

 

For more on LGBT issues in the Jewish community, go to the Keshet blog.

Posted on June 23, 2015

The Growth and Development of an Independent, Observant Minyan

Kol Sasson-Skokie IL (1)

Kol Sasson Congregation was founded in Skokie, Illinois in 2003 as a Shira Hadasha-style minyan. At first, we met on Friday night only, and all of our members belonged to other local synagogues. In 2006, we met for our first High Holiday services, and quickly transitioned to meeting every Shabbat and for every holiday. I have been involved since the beginning, and was also the minyan’s first president. Here are some things that I learned along the way.

After establishing a listserv to reach potential attendees for Kabbalat Shabbat, one of the first things that we did was to find a halakhic adviser. (At the time, there was not an option for a maharat, an Orthodox woman clergy member; and although this issue has not come up, I am sure that our community would accept a maharat as well as a rabbi to be our halakhic adviser.) For our community, this was particularly important because when we started, none of us felt particularly competent on halakhic matters. Even now that we have three Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbis as members, we continue to use a halakhic adviser. This has allowed us to focus our organizational efforts on building and administering our growing community instead of spending our time debating specific halakhic matters. Curiously, we have never had a halakhic adviser who attended our services regularly. This has not been by design, but may have had the serendipitous effect of allowing us to continue to be lay-led and to seek halakhic advice only when we feel that we needed it.

Concurrent with our formation, many other similar minyans began to form around the world, and many people advocated for a handbook that would outline normative prayer practices for these types of minyans. We never participated in this endeavor, and I never thought a handbook was a good idea because each community needs to find what works for them. For example, Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem waits for 10 men and 10 women before it starts prayers. Our first halakhic adviser suggested that we not go beyond the halakhic requirements, so we wait for 10 men and then get started. From a practical manner this was essential — we are a much smaller community than Shira Hadasha is. Had we waited for 10 men and 10 women, we would have frustrated our nascent community with long delays and cancelled services. Our growth and success may have suffered irreparably.

Once we began meeting for the High Holidays, we needed to raise money to rent a space. In order for community members’ contributions to be tax deductible, we needed to meet the requirements of IRS section 501(c)(3) — including drafting a set of bylaws. For our first set of bylaws, I used some boilerplate language from a church that I found online, which met the minimal requirements under the regulations. They were vague regarding governance, which provided us with maximum flexibility allowing us to develop an operating structure organically. Our second set of bylaws memorialized our structural and procedural development. For a small organization, the details of the bylaws are much less important than organizational personality. One needs to run an organization with the maximum amount of transparency and consensus compatible with efficiency. Those practical details will be different for each organization so good leadership is essential.

How to find that first good leader is a mystery to me, but I think there are two things that are essential for continued good leadership. The first is succession. I consider a leader a failure if he/she has not actively fostered his/her own successor. No matter how good a leader is, an organization will suffer from sclerosis if new leaders are not allowed to develop and flourish. Kol Sasson is in its 10th year since incorporation, and we are currently searching for our fifth president. The corollary to succession and the second essential component is mentoring. We accomplish this by keeping our past leadership involved and by having a clear ideology. The organization then has a historical memory that we can pass on from generation to generation.

Our ideology is a key part of our historical memory and it is what makes us who we are. Early on, we worked with a professional consultant, and together with the entire membership, we developed a mission statement. It has served as a touchstone for everything that we do. You can find the complete text here. A prose summary that we use widely in our literature is as follows.

Kol Sasson Congregation is an inclusive, observant community in Skokie, Illinois that strives to transform Jewish lives through critical inquiry within the traditional framework of Halakha. We encourage men and women to participate in ritual and leadership roles – creating a generous and vibrant community with joyful tefillah.

We specifically do not define ourselves as feminist. We felt that inclusivity subsumes that; we felt that our desire to be inclusive extends beyond women’s issues; and we hoped that one day the term feminism in a mission statement would appear archaic as it would be an assumed component of all Jewish communal life.

Ultimately, our ideology is important because it creates a community of joyful prayer. The women sing joyfully because of their new-found empowerment; the men sing joyfully in concert with the women; together their voices rise up to heaven as an expression of this partnership among women, men, and God.

I am in awe of what we have accomplished at Kol Sasson Congregation given our relatively small community and limited resources. I attribute that to the power of our ideology. Because that ideology is so compelling to thoughtful, educated Jews, it attracts a group of people who are intrinsically committed to any endeavor that they undertake. I imagine that our success will be replicated throughout the world as a new generation of reflexively inclusive, educated, and spiritual Jews assumes leadership positions.

To learn more about independent minyans, check out “The Independent Minyan and Havurah Phenomenon.

Posted on June 17, 2015

Supporting Victims of Domestic Violence in the Orthodox World

shutterstock_189170549

When I say I work at a domestic violence shelter that serves the religious community, reactions are divided and fall into two categories. Some people are shocked that such transgressions can occur in such a “God fearing” community, while others use it as further proof of the inequality of women in the religious world. The truth is these reactions are both wrong and right.

There are only 14 government-registered domestic violence shelters in Israel. Two shelters serve the Arabic-speaking population, two serve the religious Jewish community, and the remaining 10 serve the general population. Violence against women exists in every community, cultural group, and country. Religion does not exempt you from these statistics. However, what you do see is unique forms of abuse and coping from the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities. Women have to rediscover their voice as a mother, but also as a religious example for their children. Women in the shelter are able to try activities they had never had access to before — including yoga, Zumba, drama, and art. They have a creative outlet that they never experienced before. Some women find new careers, taking vocational training while at the shelter. They rediscover their passions.

There were 755 women who stayed in Israeli shelters in 2014. Of those 755, or 24 percent, identified as religious, 25 percent identified as ultra-Orthodox and 39 percent as Arab. The term “religious” in Israel is used to define a wide variety of sects and practices. Those statistics alone seem to allude to a higher rate of abuse in minority groups in Israel. But domestic violence and the need for shelter is a much more complex issue.

The women who seek refuge in a shelter typically come as a last resort or life-saving measure. Most women who are in trouble have family to lean on or someone to take them in. However, if you are coming from a religious community where there is a lot of stigma attached to leaving your husband, you might opt to come to a shelter. Perhaps, you have family willing to take you in, but you have too many children and they have no room for you. Maybe you’re a convert or have a different level of observance than your family does, meaning you would not be comfortable staying with them. Maybe you’re an immigrant with no other connections in the country.

Yes, you can claim that women in religious communities are more susceptible to violence because of general attitudes toward women. We do see a unique form of abuse coming out of religious communities, what is known as “religious abuse.” You didn’t do what I told you so you’re not allowed to light Shabbat candles. You’re not allowed to pray because if you can’t get along with me, then God doesn’t want to hear from you. These examples of complete control over women’s religious life further support the acute need for a religious shelter. Bat Melech, where I work, operates the only two shelters in Israel that observe Shabbat and kashrut. Therapies offered in the shelter are sensitive to this form of “religious abuse” and rehabilitate women on a spiritual level.

Many view religious women as burdened, uneducated, or marginalized. Sure those words might apply in some instances, but for a religious victim of domestic violence, religion might be an escape or a saving grace. One might think their abuse comes from religion, but they might think their salvation comes from religion. They enter a religious shelter where they are welcomed with open arms. The women see that the religious world can now be their place of healing and not only their source of pain. Many women take shiurim, classes, in the shelter or learn in chevruta, with a partner, allowing them independence to practice religion as they wish.

Abuse is abuse, and it’s important not to make assumptions about the victims or their communities. Women come to us without a high school diploma or with a PhD, with no children or with eight children. Hasidic, Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), religious Zionist, Sephardic, Ashkenazic, Ethiopian, Russian, American, French, every woman has a different story, but they have a shared experience of abuse. In Israeli society where these differences would typically divide women, they live in unity in the Bat Melech shelter.

Posted on June 15, 2015

Living “Out” Within the Orthodox Community

shutterstock_251296303

I grew up 100 percent Camp Ramah and United Synagogue Youth (both Conservative movement institutions), but after marrying a Modern Orthodox man, my husband and I decided to raise our family Camp Stone, Bnei Akiva and NCSY (all Orthodox). We belong to a Modern Orthodox synagogue, and my kids went to a Modern Orthodox day school.

I have loved raising my family within this community. Carpools. Camp. Shabbat meals. Cookouts. Parks. Travel. Friends who would watch my kids if I was in a bind or just needed a break. I had my village.

While some of the rigidity that comes along with community goes against my personal beliefs, I decided to simply set that aside in favor of all the beauty in Orthodox Judaism. I am constantly grateful for the halakhic boundaries that have made parenting easier. When my kids were little, they would throw a tantrum at the grocery store over a “must-have.” But if it wasn’t kosher, there was no tantrum. We would fight over too much TV, but for twenty-five hours every Shabbat there was no TV. Family dinners during the week were aspirational, but every Shabbat we ate together.

In my mind, the beauty exceeded the feminist issues that stumped me. Kol Isha, the prohibition on men hearing women sing. Mechitza, the barrier separating men and women during worship services. The marriage ceremony. And so on.

Until my son told us that he was gay.

My husband and I never wavered — not for one second — in our love and support of our son. But those first few weeks were very hard for me. I cried, a lot. I was surprised by my reaction. My head and my heart were not in sync. I did not care about people’s sexual orientation, but I hadn’t envisioned what that would look like in my own family. The family photo would look different.

In those first few weeks, I worried about my son’s friendships. I worried about his safety. I worried about his future. I worried about being a good mom. And I worried about my family’s place in our community.

Twenty-two years of making decisions based on community norms, and suddenly we were on the periphery. On the surface, no one treated us any differently. Friends and family were wonderful. But there were murmurings in the community. I heard that the school administration spoke with the faculty, asking them to keep an eye on our younger kids to make sure they were okay. Nice, yes. Naïve, totally. But no one reached out to us, the parents. Silence.

I wanted to wear my new status proudly. I wanted everyone to know that my son’s sexual orientation made no difference. But it was like learning a new language. Do you tell everyone you see? Do you casually bring the conversation around? I did not want a silence that could be misconstrued for discomfort. I had my first opportunity to test my new vocabulary at a Jewish Federation meeting at my house.  My daughter sent me a picture of her new piercing (nose stud). Someone sitting next to me said, “Are you okay with that?” I responded, “Oh, that is totally no big deal. My son just told us he is gay.” Well, that news blast made everyone a little uncomfortable. So the script needed to be changed. I kept working at balancing my goals of announcing the news with avoiding making other people feel uncomfortable. Over time, however, my need to fill the silence has diminished.

And as I grew more comfortable with the news of my son’s sexual orientation, my relationship with the Jewish community grew more comfortable as well. As it turns out, being on the periphery isn’t all bad; actually it’s liberating. Once my son was “out,” I felt out too. All of a sudden, I felt a little less bound by what everyone else was doing and free to make my own decisions. And I felt way more compassion for other families who seemed to be on the periphery. Families whose kids’ needs couldn’t be met by the day school. The mother dealing with whispers of, “How could that mother let that girl leave the house looking like that?” I felt more empathic now that we had joined “other.”

So how do I reconcile the religious community’s discomfort with my son’s sexual orientation? I don’t. And I am not worried. I am optimistic and hopeful that my son, his siblings, and friends are finding their own way.

My prayer for my children, and everyone’s children, is that they find a meaningful and accepting religious home for themselves. And if one doesn’t exist, that they have the courage to build it.

Susan Borison is the mother of five and the editor of Your Teen Magazine, a magazine for parents of teenagers.

For more about LGBT Jews, check out the Keshet blog.

Posted on June 10, 2015

Feminism Comes in Many Different Forms

shutterstock_187085072

“Why don’t you learn to read the megillah,” asked my husband a few months before Purim.

I thought about it for a minute and shook my head.

Thanks to a long-held fear of public speaking and a voice that’s best heard only in the confines of my car, standing up in front of a crowd and reading the megillah isn’t a long-held desire of mine. Nor do I really want to get an aliyah in a women’s tefillah group or partnership minyan. I don’t really want to carry a Torah around the women’s section either.

I say all of this while still proudly identifying myself as an Orthodox feminist. For me, feminism isn’t about leading prayers, saying kiddush, or reading from the Torah. I am content to sit and support others who want to take a starring role.

“Why do you care so much about feminism if you don’t actually want to lead anything?” my husband asked after I dismissed his suggestion.

The question made me reflect on why I care about women being able to participate in ritual; why I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard that the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance was starting in the UK; why I always went out of my way to attend women’s megillah readings on Purim and women’s shiurim, classes. And why I felt strongly that women should serve as leaders in at our local synagogue – strongly enough that I ended up joining the board.

To me, Orthodox feminism is about recognizing that everyone – both male and female – feels spiritually fulfilled in different ways. For many women, this means taking a leadership role, giving divrei torah or getting aliyot. For some, it’s about listening to Torah reading or the megillah from the centre of the room and not from behind a partition. For others, it’s learning from the seforim, books, they want, and not from those prescribed for them.

There are so many ways for women to feel involved and included within Orthodoxy. And we need our communities to think of women as equal participants and not observers of the action from the side lines. Women today are too accomplished, too educated, too present to be forgotten.

On a Rosh Hashanah not long ago, our family attended a local synagogue’s overflow service. The minyan was held in a room that didn’t belong to the synagogue, and that was turned into a temporary prayer space. The bima, podium, and cantor were placed in the middle of the men’s side, making it hard for all but the first row in the women’s section to hear Torah reading and the prayers. After the first day of the holiday, I approached the organizer, asking if perhaps the bima could be placed in the middle of the room, next to the mechitza, enabling the women to hear better.

The organizer was polite and open to hearing feedback, although his response wasn’t to my liking.  It’s a great example of how the women weren’t taken into consideration in advance, in this case before the room was set up. Perhaps if the organizers had thought about this then there would have been less reluctance to change the status quo during the holiday.

I know that the next time we choose to join a makeshift minyan, I will get in touch with the organizers before it is set up in order to ask how the room will be organized and to make sure that the women will have the same access to the service as the men.

That is feminism just as much as making kiddush on Shabbat, or leading a prayer group. Orthodox feminism needs more than one type of feminist. What role will you play?

Don’t miss out on the 3rd Annual JOFA UK Conference on June 28. Buy your tickets here.

Posted on June 8, 2015

Opening the Walls of Our Chuppah

shutterstock_111458687

There is a particular photograph that adorns the imagination of every engaged couple; it is of a young girl, age five, maybe six, dressed in the stunning garb of a would-be bride. Beside her sits her male counterpart, gazing into oblivion, the antithesis of interest. Indeed, this image evokes stereotypes of the young girl, particularly obsessed with her future wedding day, and the boy who cannot be bothered.

Like so many stereotypes, this notion contains a parcel of truth, and indeed aptly portrays the emotions of many couples. Yet again, like so many stereotypes, it is overly simplistic and hyper generalized. Though I have no memories of daydreaming about my wedding day as a child, as I grew older and began regularly attending the weddings of friends and family, I could not help but imagine the day that I would be the one under the chuppah, wedding canopy. I dreamt of the perfect tisch, an endless chorus of songs. I dreamt of the bedeken, being marched in to see my bride, who would be flanked on either side by our mothers. I dreamt of the ceremony, my bride circling me, and me stomping on the glass. I dreamt of the perfect reception, dancing, eating, and ending with gorgeous bentching, Grace after Meals.

When I met Marti, I knew that she would be the one. She would be the one who waited for me as I was marched into the bedeken. She would be the one who circled me and whose hand I would grab after breaking the glass. She would be the one with whom I danced, and she would be the one with whom I would build my home. Even as I write this, I feel overjoyed remembering that excitement.

As our dreaming morphed to planning, some of the excitement morphed into anxiety. We both realized how much of the wedding was tightly gendered. Though my bride-to-be shared my dream of a very traditional wedding, we also wanted to imagine ways of increasing all peoples’ involvement, regardless of gender. We wanted to include more of our female friends, and we wanted the ceremony to reflect our mutual commitment.

As we began planning, it became clear that many innovations which had been proposed to us were not feasible at our wedding. We were not inspired by certain halakhic innovations (for example, permitting women witnesses), and others felt overly intrusive or disruptive of our ceremony (while we love Rabbi Dov Linzer’s two-ring ceremony, we did not want to sign the ketubah under the chuppah).

Ultimately, we made a list of particular needs that we had, and researched potential solutions. We wanted the women to feel involved during the tisch, we wanted the bedeken to be a moment where we each covered the other, and we wanted female participation under the chuppah. To our amazement, we were able to find several solutions that allowed us to retain the feeling of the wholly traditional ceremony we had always envisioned, while incorporating more involvement of women than we had initially envisioned. Below are some ideas that we decided to incorporate:

As I sang with my friends during the groom’s tisch, a similar production  took place just down the hall. Marti will had a bride’s tisch, with friends and family singing away. As I was marched in, on my brothers’ shoulders, for the bedeken I covered Marti’s face, and she too covered me. She replaced my regular kippah, with a new kippah that she made for me. As I kneeled in front of her, it was one of the holiest moments of my life.

After I was carried away from the bedeken, as our friends filed into the wedding hall, Marti and I met briefly with our rabbis and our families in order to watch as the witnesses signed our ketubah. It seemed bizarre that one of the three staples of marriage, shtar, the signing of the marriage contract, would occur in the absence of the bride. So, instead, we met in the room where my tisch had taken place, and in a small, intimate, setting we signed our wedding document.

Finally, we had several female friends who we wanted to honor. They signed our halakhic prenuptial agreement, and other secular documents, but we also wanted something for them to do under the chuppah; something of uniquely Jewish significance. My chevruta, study partner from Yeshiva, introduced me to the eighth sheva berakha, marriage blessing, of Rav Amram Gaon. Though there is no shem umalchus (the traditional defining aspects of a blessing) it is a persuasive and gorgeous prayer. Our good friend, Rabbi Rachel Silverman, recited it for us under the chuppah.

We sought a solution that would increase involvement of all of our guests (indeed, we also looked for ways of including our nonobservant and non-Jewish friends). There is a traditional greeting that we should be “zocheh livnot bayit neeman b’yisrael, we should merit to build a faithful home amongst Israel.” While we knew the wedding would focus on our building of a “bayit neeman, a faithful house,” we did not want to lose sight of the yisrael, that is, all of Israel. Like the chuppah above us, we pray to build a home in the image of Avraham Avinu, without walls, and open to all. Many of these ideas and innovations helped make our wedding day the holiest day of our life.

Posted on June 3, 2015

Wandering Jewess

shutterstock_233582383_cropped

Jew. Woman. American. Those three attributes are as intrinsic to my identity as my own name.  A close fourth would be “traveler,” and how I navigate the globe is deeply tied to all three parts of my being.

In the past twenty months I have found myself in eighteen different countries, some for work and some for pleasure. I am a veritable wanderer. Travel is in my bones, and it’s something I’ll do for as long as I live. It always comes with its struggles, worthy though they may be: language, food, culture shock, and unusual forms of transportation. But the greatest struggle of the past two years has been defining and maintaining my Judaism. In college, I had an incredible, vibrant community that I called home. I could challenge aspects of it, I could complain (as we all do) about this and that, but by and large it sustained me and I knew my place in it. These past twenty months I’ve had many homes and I’ve had none. I currently live out of a suitcase in half a dozen European capitals, and my home is a storage unit on 21st Street and 11th Avenue in Manhattan.  I’ve been forced to reckon with those aspects of Judaism that I struggle with, make compromises I wasn’t always proud of, and explain to strangers what Jews even are. I am learning every day what it means to live as a Jew in Asia, in Europe, and in America, and slowly discovering how I want to define my Judaism to myself and to others.

As a woman traveling alone, I am regularly met with confusion or shock. I take it in stride. Traveling alone is deeply empowering, and it’s an experience I think every woman ought to have.

Reflecting back on the past twenty months, three experiences in three very different synagogues stand out to my female, Jewish-American sensibilities:

I
Friday night in Warsaw, I arrived a little late to the Nożyk synagogue. Expecting an older and smaller crowd, I was shocked when I walked into to the sanctuary to a bellowing, exuberant Kabbalat Shabbat service. There were hundreds of teenagers as far as the eye could see, and suddenly I remembered that March of the Living was in town. Soaring cries filled the building, though I quickly realized that the voices were only coming from below, in the men’s section. The girls were clamoring for space, leaning over the too-tall balcony, craning their necks and fighting to see the life, the worship taking place below. They might have been singing, but I couldn’t hear them.

II
Chabad of Bangkok was my religious home during the year I taught English in Thailand. The hodge-podge expat community wasn’t always a perfect fit, but it sustained me. I walked into synagogue at 10pm on Shavuot to learn, and saw only two women among the men crowded around a table in the women’s section. The women were on the outside of the circle, politely listening in. I raised my eyebrows at them and dragged a chair into the middle of the circle, muttering “hell no” to myself. I was the only woman to stay up until 4am with men many years my senior, learning and debating over Rambam’s list of 613 mitzvot. I was told several times that year by my friends in the community that I “scared off the men” with my feminist ideas and my learning.

III
On Shabbat afternoon during Passover in Florence I headed to a small, sunlit salon next to the synagogue. A group of women had arranged a reading of Shir Hashirim, the Song of Songs, for the second year in a row. Eighteen older women sat in an oval in the center of the room, flanked by more who came to listen. The melody began, piercing the air with melancholy, longing and holiness. Each woman sang her own part (some voices were beautiful, others less so) and all of their voices contributed to a greater whole: a true love song to the Jewish people, and to God, in a Florentine tune forgotten by the men of the community and resurrected by its women. Typically in the Great Synagogue, only echoes of the prayers from the men’s section can be heard, while the women are quiet or chatting, disengaged. But here, it was the voices of women filling the space and claiming it as their own.

In these three very different synagogues I saw a progression of women’s engagement in Jewish ritual life (though disclaimer, I’ve told these stories out of order). In Warsaw, I saw young women who wanted to be involved, but were unable and seemingly unsure of how to do so. In Bangkok, I, who am a little bit older than those girls, asserted myself and claimed the experience that I wanted as a woman, even though it made some uncomfortable. And in Florence, women twice my age had found a space for themselves and had invited others to join in.

I can walk into a synagogue anywhere in the world, find my place in the service, and feel a small sense of belonging. That’s the remarkable thing about travel; finding home in the most unexpected of places. Judaism looks vastly different across borders and outside of America. Communally and religiously, different perspectives are valued, different traditions take center stage, and different approaches exist regarding the shifting roles of women in the world. As I strive for a fully articulated and authentic Jewish practice for myself as a woman and as an American, I often brush against the changing narratives and priorities of these other communities. I’m not always pleased with what I find, and I’m sure I don’t always please my hosts. And yet, we find moments to meet, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes joyfully, but always in our shared space of worship.

Posted on June 1, 2015

Finding My Voice Through the Book of Ruth

shutterstock_95813809

I have always fancied myself as a feminist. When I was in primary school, I remember arguing with one of the rabbis about why Shacharit club (an early morning prayer group) was only for boys, and being super disappointed that the reason given was that only they will one day be needed to make up a minyan, although as a concession I could attend if I really wanted to. This was 1989.

Since then, whenever the opportunity has arisen to have a meaningful discussion about women’s roles in Judaism, I have been keen to take part.

That said, when it came to me actually doing anything– leading a women’s only mezumin, reciting kiddush out loud– I always shied away. The reason was twofold: firstly I can’t read Hebrew brilliantly, and secondly, my singing voice is universally acknowledged to be pretty terrible. More like a man than an angel. Ever since a disastrous solo as Mrs. Noah in a school play, I have been advised to avoid public solo singing, and I have.

So, when a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to read Megillat Ruth in synagogue, my response was the same as when I was asked to take part in reading Megillat Esther. I will happily come along and listen, and have an argument with anyone that thinks women ought not to read megillah… however, I’d leave the actual performing to the others.

Unfortunately, this time my friend misunderstood my response and before I knew it, an email had gone around with Megillat Ruth divided up and I was given nine verses in the first chapter. Eeek.

If I pulled out then, I would feel like I was turning my back on the sisterhood in a very public way, and so it was that my journey with Ruth began.

My first step was to read the story. I knew the basics–Naomi, Ruth, conversion, feet– but I thought “If I’m leading a community in this I need to know the story a bit better.” So I read it through a few times, got myself very familiar with the characters, and then I started on the Hebrew.

My husband, thankfully, has been leyning since childhood and can speak and read Hebrew fluently so he set out the task of teaching me the notes. Not so easy. The tune of Ruth is fairly subtle when sang by an expert, with no obvious or memorable melody so you can imagine my struggle. Having listened to men leyning most of my life, I was surprised by the discipline involved. I don’t have brothers so I never experienced the Bar Mitzvah boy prep first-hand, and getting to grips with the mahpach, pashdach and the reveee (all various squiggles and dots which tell me when to go up, come down, pause) was tricky. Bizarrely though, I found myself quite enjoying learning the new mini language. On the way to work, I sang along with my YouTube recording of Moshe Weisblum, during the kids’ bath time I was humming the non-tune tune, and every night before bed I read through it once. May seem a little extreme, but I was nervous.

We had our first and only group practice at the Rebbetzin’s house. While it was true that my voice was nowhere near as beautiful as the other women’s voices, and did indeed sound a bit like a breaking 13-year-old boy’s voice, I got through it, I think, without any serious mistakes. Big sigh of relief.

Second day of Shavuot arrived and I woke up feeling like it was my bar mitzvah. Ridiculous, seeing as how I was one of many women reading megillah and my part was really rather small. However, it felt like for the first time ever, I was going to take an active role in the service. I had graduated from observer to participant and it was wonderful. Lots of friends and family came to hear me and, as I stood at the bima, podium, for the first time, I felt like my heart was about to burst. These were my words in my megillah in my synagogue and I was finally connected to my Judaism in a way I have never before experienced. My musical ability didn’t matter one bit, I took a deep breath and I was off. It was good and I felt proud. After having had my Jewish voice silenced by Orthodoxy for so long, this experience made two things really clear to me. We must give our girls a voice, and now that I’ve found mine, no one is taking it away! I look forward to lots more learning and leyning in the future…

Don’t miss out on the 3rd Annual JOFA UK Conference on June 28. Buy your tickets here.

Posted on May 28, 2015

My First Aliyah L’Torah

942100_10151564188476848_1386580918_n

Partnership minyans are a relatively new phenomenon in our part of northwest London, so when one started around the corner from us, my husband and I made a point of going with our three young children. We’ve been half a dozen times in the past but this Shabbat was the first time that I had the opportunity to participate.

I walked in and sat down, ready to sing and listen to the men and women leading the service. Before I had a chance to open my siddur though, one of the organizers approached me.

“Would you like an aliyah?” she asked.

Too surprised to give it much thought, I answered yes. Only in the minutes afterward did I have a chance to think about what it meant. Having an aliyah was always something that I thought one day would happen, but I had figured that I would need more advance preparation. I read through the blessings I had heard many a bar mitzvah boy read aloud and felt ready.

When my turn came, the gabbai called my name and I approached the bima, podium. I kissed the Torah, held on to the etzei chayim and recited the blessing. The same blessing that I had heard my father, a Kohen, repeat so often at our local synagogue growing up. As I said the words, it was his voice I heard coming through.

Then as I stood next to the person reading Torah, I was able to directly see the beautifully inscribed letters as she recited them. I was totally focused on the Torah reading and the portion, oblivious for once of my young daughter running around or the other distractions I normally get drawn to in synagogue. When the reader finished, the gabbai recited a mi’sheberach prayer for my family, making an official connection between one generation and the next. I will forever have a connection to the seventh aliyah of Parashat Emor, and felt honored to have the chance to participate so publicly.

I made my way back to my seat amid smiles and whisperings of yasher koach from friends, acknowledging that I was part of the service and, for the first time, more than an observer.

Don’t miss out on the 3rd Annual JOFA UK Conference on June 28. Buy your tickets here.

Posted on May 26, 2015