A Shabbat of Learning, Prayer, and Growth at UPenn

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This summer, I had the privilege of attending a conference about Partnership Minyanim, hosted by Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem. I was impressed by the number of people this weekend attracted and by the deep engagement with Jewish tradition. However, one voice I felt was missing was that of young people. When Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem and Darkhei Noam in New York were first founded, they were led by and largely consisted of young adults and families. Now that these communities have been around for thirteen years, they attract a significantly older demographic.

American college campuses are now home to some of the fastest growth of partnership minyanim. There are currently at least eight partnership minyanim on U.S. college campuses. For the second year in a row, Penn Shira Hadasha hosted an Intercollegiate Partnership Minyanim Shabbaton. This year, we attracted students from ten different campuses. In addition to a variety of peer led discussions, the shabbaton featured Rav Shmuly Yanklowitz, a YCT graduate and founder of Uri L’Tzedek and the Shamayim V’aretz Institute, as a Scholar-in-Residence. With JOFA’s generous financial support, we were able to bring in Rav Shmuly to guide the group in thinking about a variety of important Jewish and social justice topics.

For me, the proudest part of this Shabbat for me was the davening. Many of the partnership minyanim on college campuses come together once every two weeks for one prayer service over the course of Shabbat. Our communities have settled for being prayer communities that meet sporadically and provide only a small subset of the required Jewish prayers. However, over this Shabbat, dozens of students came together for all of the prayer services and a number of female students led services and read Torah for the first time. This is certainly the most meaningful part of running a partnership minyan, empowering a female student, who never knew she could participate in services, to lead the community and find a new way to connect to prayer. The fact that our community was able to provide a space for partnership-style prayer throughout Shabbat inspired all of the participants. We all realized that partnership minyanim are a sustainable model, and that we should all strive for prayer spaces that allow for women’s participation and not settle for traditional Orthodox communities.

Throughout Shabbat, Rav Shmuly led us in conversations about veganism, social justice, and women’s participation, including a class we cosponsored with the Orthodox Community, entitled “Constructing a Philosophy of Halakha: The Role of Women in Ritual.” During the class, we considered several models of revelation and how we view our relationship to true Torah, and how each of these informs our view of halakha, specifically women’s roles in ritual. Rav Shmuly challenged each student to first define our own conception of halakha, and then make our decisions about specific issues based on this model. This conversation continued for two hours, as we spoke about modern challenges in Orthodoxy such as the price of living an Orthodox lifestyle, the challenges of being part of a community you don’t agree with ideologically, how to bring the idea of Torah U’Mada back into Modern Orthodoxy, and more. This honest and critical conversation about many of the issues we face with our communities was both refreshing and rejuvenating.

Our community is so proud to have been able to bring together a group of students committed to Judaism, feminism, and social justice for a meaningful Shabbat of prayer, learning, and conversation. We were so impressed by the students we met and the hard work they are putting in on their campuses to grow this movement of Orthodox Feminism and Partnership Minyanim. We were able to engage in many meaningful and important conversations about Judaism that are unfortunately all too rare in our separate communities. We hope that these Shabbatons continue in the future, fostering a space for critical conversations about our communities and inspiring students to continue building this movement across the country.

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