Women’s Megillah Reading in a Small Town–Some Tips From Our 5th Year

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania — we are the capital city of the Commonwealth. No, Pennsylvania’s capital is not in Philadelphia. Several years ago I was asked at a wedding in Lawrence, “Do you have a daily minyan in Harrisburg?” Hmmmm. Yes, we do.

We have one Orthodox shul, two Conservative synagogues, a Reform temple and, across the river, a Reconstructionist congregation. We have a Jewish day school, the Silver Academy, which is 70 years old and our Jewish Community Center just celebrated its 100th anniversary.

Still, we are small in number, but we are a strong and unified community.

We are especially proud of this unique feature of our Jewish community and proudly point to the Women’s Megillah Reading as an example of this strength.

This year marks our fifth annual Women’s Megillah Reading. Our readers are affiliated with four different congregations and the reading is conducted at the JCC, a neutral location where everyone feels comfortable. From the start, our goal has been to encourage the involvement of as many women as possible and, therefore, we allow readers to leyn (chant) as few as three verses or as much as a full chapter. This year we have 26 readers, six of whom are first-time readers. In the last five years, over 50 different women have learned how to read Megillah (the Book of Esther) through this initiative. Our readers span the generations, ranging in age from recent bat mitzvah pre-teens to women of a “certain age.” We draw an assembly of about 60–70 women for the Purim morning reading.

When is Purim 2017? Click here to find out!

Conducting a successful women’s megillah reading requires the support of many individuals and organizations. Our Jewish federation has cooperated with us by offering the room gratis and by funding the purchase of Megillot booklets. Women have contributed to the post-reading treats and drinks and others have assisted in the decoration and creation of the festive environment. Everyone wears a costume!

The organization that we have used to carry out this project began with the selection of an administrative director and a halakhic (Jewish law) director. In January, the administrative director begins to solicit volunteers by using social media and general community outreach. She uses an Excel spreadsheet to track the assignments, creates the publicity and manages the logistics. During the two-month period before Purim, a steady stream of Megillah commentary or Purim tidbits is transmitted by email to readers. This communication helps to enrich the experience and fortify the shared mission among the diverse readers thereby creating a real sisterhood.

The halakhic director assures that all readers are properly prepared. We are indebted to JOFA for creating the Megillah App which most of our readers use to learn correct pronunciation and the proper trope (cantillation). Readers review their Megillah assignment with the halakhic director. She studies the halakha and answers all questions that arise at the reading.  

This year, a woman I asked to be a reader wrote, “I know that you and others have been doing this Women’s Megillah Reading, although I am not sure what the motivation is for a sex-specific reading. Perhaps you could enlighten me?”

Here is what I answered in part, “When we are all together there is a special spirituality, a seriousness of purpose and a real sense of accomplishment. I can’t really explain why without speculating on a sociological, psychological or political basis, but I have felt this dynamic every year. Anyone who has participated as a reader or attended as part of the congregation will tell you that it is a special, joyous event.” 

She replied, “It sounds like fun, Marian, and I would like to take part next year. I will, however, plan to attend the reading, with my mother (90 years old) if she’s willing. I think she might get a charge out of seeing/hearing a group of strong women doing… the ganze megillah.”

We are appreciative to all the women who have helped us achieve the fifth anniversary of the Women’s Megillah Reading in Harrisburg and look forward to this year’s reading.

Why not follow our example and establish a group in your community?  Feel free to contact me if you have any questions!

Check out all of JOFA’s Resources for Purim and Megillah Reading! 

Add your megillah reading to our directory of women’s megillah readings around the world! 

Discover More

How A Whale Awakened My Spirituality

Jonah isn't the only one whose journey was impacted by a big sea creature

Why Jews Eat Round Challah For the New Year

A sweet and symbolic tradition for the Jewish New Year