That Time the Lulav Made Me Cry

I love the holiday season – I even love a three day yontif (yom tov, or holiday).  

With the exception of a few occasions as a teenager, and the weeks where the lack of an eruv prevented me from traveling to shul with my newborn, I have always arrived at shul on Shabbos (Shabbat) and yontif no later than barekhu (the beginning of morning services). I was often alone in the women’s section, but eventually came to realize that although I was behind the mechitza (albeit one that allowed me to see everything) I was the same as 95% of everyone else in shul. I wasn’t counted for a minyan (quorum of 10 men), but besides for that, none of the men played a role different than mine other than the gabbaim (sextons), baalei kriyah (Torah readers) and baalei tefillah (those leading the prayer services). I was a participant in the same way as 95% of the men. I certainly did the exact same things as my father did in shul on Shabbos mornings.

I feel like I am important when I am in shul like everyone else. I fill up space, I provide community and know everyone there — yes there are halakhic (Jewish legal) limitations, but not everyone gets to shine all the time and I can shine in other ways, often in the same ways as those on the other side of the mechitza. It is rare for me to feel excluded from the entire service, but all that changes every year on Sukkot. Suddenly, starting at Hallel, I feel like a bystander. Every man carries a lulav while he prays, but none of the women do. I eventually began to bring my own, but I felt the dissonance when no other women were shaking with me. It only got worse as the service went on. It was on Sukkot that I felt pushed into the audience of the shul experience. I would stand there with the other women watching the Hoshanas – even little boys who had yet to be bar mitzvahed were participants, while I was left on the margins.  

I happen to love every other part of Sukkot — inviting people over, sitting outside under twinkling lights, and wrapping myself in my special floor-length sweater for nighttime meals (the fashion is long gone but I save it for Sukkot every year). But then come the tears while watching Hoshanas. As I stand there, feeling pushed to the sidelines by my exclusion, I don’t feel like a valued member of the community anymore.

It never occurred to me, nor it seems to anyone else, that the practice of Hoshanas does not have to be exclusive to the men. During college, I happened to visit a shul in Springfield, New Jersey and I noted a few women with lulavim during Hallel – it was a first for me. Little did I know that it was only the start – during Hoshanas a connecting kiddush room was opened and the women had their own circle behind a mechitza. I was elated.

The online chatter in the world of women and Judaism seems to find focus of late on partnership minyanim and women’s leadership roles. For the majority of shuls this is so far from their radar. Women’s sections are empty, and no one seems to making a real effort to fill them, to actively invite women back and assure them that they are valued members of the community, that there is an urgency to their presence. There are so many ways to invite women to have a more active roles in synagogue life that are not halakhically controversial so as to make sure that women are community participants, rather than audience members.

For me, I felt invited the first time the gabbai at my college minyan checked to see that the women’s side was also done with the silent amidah (personal prayer) before telling the chazzan (cantor, or leader of services) to start the repetition. For others it might be moving the spot where the speech is given so that everyone has a clear view.  It might mean having a bat mitzvah girl make kiddush (the blessing over the wine) or changing the nature of bar and bat mitzvahs so that they are both centered around a siyyum (a traditional celebration to commemorate completion of a section of Torah study) which is something both can do in entirety. It might mean speaking up and advising that all members of the shul above bar and bat mitzvah age should have a lulav and etrog rather than just the male “head of household.” For many shuls it might still be a change to have both sides of the mechitza dancing with the Torah. On the other hand when a shul decides to start hakafot (circling with the Torah) where only men can partake –  that sends the message that women are not part of the celebrated community but in fact are the other. None of these small policy changes is controversial – but they all send a message that is either blatantly inclusive or exclusive.

We need to do something, our Rabbinic and community leadership needs to do something. I never told anyone about my tears until I became the Rebbitzin (rabbi’s wife) of my own shul and had a Rabbi who wanted to listen. I’m sure there are women and girls everywhere with their moments of tears in shul – many might not be in shul anymore at all. We need to reach out to them, to offer an ear for listening, to offer policy changes. Community leadership must take the first step though, for when you have pushed someone away, you cannot wait for them to ask for permission to come back – you must invite them with urgency.

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