Women's Tefillah Movement

How Orthodox women found a halakhic way to be involved in services.

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During this period, most women's tefillah groups met in private homes, as Orthodox synagogues were not prepared to sanction the practice. Two notable exceptions in New York were the Riverdale group, which was invited by Rabbi Avi Weiss to meet in the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, a major Orthodox synagogue, and an East Side group which met in Kehillat Jeshurun under the guidance of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein.

Opposition and Responses to Women's Tefillah

Mainstream modern Orthodox rabbis and community leaders rejected women's tefillah groups for reasons that ranged from the halakhic to the sociological. This issue came to a head in 1985 with publication of the "Teshuva: Responsum" by five highly regarded Yeshiva University rabbis. The position paper viewed the movement as stemming from, and copying, the feminist movement in America with no serious spiritual or religious basis. It prohibited all organized women's prayer groups in any form.

Women at PrayerThe reaction to this public statement was dramatic. Although some rabbis used the statement to justify their prohibition of these prayer groups, a number of well-respected Orthodox rabbinic leaders viewed the document as totally subjective and without serious halakhic basis. This spurred them to take more public roles and action in support of the growing movement. Subsequently, a book was published by Rabbi Weiss entitled Women and Prayer, which analyzed and supported women's tefillah from a halakhic perspective.

Also as a response, the Women's Tefillah Network (WTN) was born. Through 2000 the network served as a support and resource center for new and existing groups, published regular newsletters, counseled groups, and provided groups with written and taped prayer guides. By the late 1980s, women's tefillah groups proliferated throughout New York and spread to isolated venues throughout North America. It was difficult to ascertain the exact number of groups. Since the climate was so hostile, many existed "underground." By 1988, it was estimated that there were twenty groups, and in January of 1997 there were over forty identifiable groups in the United States, Canada, Israel, England, and Australia. These represented nearly four thousand women.

According to the WTN, as of 2000 there were 33 women's tefillah groups in the United States (twenty-two of which were in New York), as well as 57 other groups worldwide, including three in Canada, seven in Israel, two in England, and one in Sydney, Australia. With the formation of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) that same year, many of the WTN's services and roles were taken over by the newer, larger organization, and the network itself became less necessary and hence less active.

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Ronnie Becher is educational director of the Gananu Early Learning Center in Manhattan. Chair of the Women's Tefillah of Riverdale, she also serves as executive vice president of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. She is a former Wexner Heritage Fellow.

Bat Sheva Marcus

Bat Sheva Marcus is executive director of the Union for Traditional Judaism and chair of the International Women's Tefillah Network. She served as the New York metropolitan campaign director for the UJA-Federation. She holds a master?s degree in social work from Columbia University and a master's degree in Jewish studies from the Jewish Theological Seminary.