Three Generations of Female Torah Readers

Three females — a 63-year-old, a 41-year-old, and an 11-year-old — have much in common. In addition to their blond, curly hair and blue eyes, they are grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter. They share life-cycle events and laughter and tears.

Another thing they share has meant so much to me, the grandmother, in particular. In past years, on Simchat Torah, all three read from the Torah in the women’s service at Young Israel of Toco Hills in Atlanta, Georgia.

While the men were getting their aliyot, 100 women danced with the Torah to the Teen House for their own reading. About 10 women (including myself, my daughter, and my granddaughter) read the last lines from V’zot HaBeracha, and after the readings, a woman gave a beautiful d’var torah, summarizing, with commentaries, the portions we had read.

My hands and knees were shaking as I read my verses. I was strengthened, however, by the other women and my three-generation family participating in such an awesome event. There was a feeling of sanctity and spirituality. The feeling of unity was palpable as women from other synagogues attended our reading in support of our efforts.

Over the last few years, Roseanne Leesak, with the support of Rabbi Adam Starr, has been instrumental in recruiting women to take on the task of learning to read from the Torah. Roseanne is an expert and she has spent many hours with the rabbi determining exactly how and when the service would take place on Simchat Torah morning. Roseanne also made herself available to teach women who had never stood in front of an open Torah how to chant and read the letters that have no vowels.

The word had gotten out — the rabbi had received some negative comments about a women’s Torah reading (without blessings, by the way). They told him it was a  slippery slope, there were even jokes of it leading to mixed dancing … but he remained strong, as did the women of the congregation, and our new tradition continues.

My daughter and granddaughter have continued in their quest to gain even more participation in Judaism. They have led women’s Torah and tefillah (prayer) groups where they also have read Torah, and continue to read on Simchat Torah. I’m now toying with the idea of leading the women’s Torah and tefillah group on Shabbat afternoon.

Many women of my generation have mentioned they don’t feel the need to do this — to read from the Torah or to participate more actively in services. They ask, “Aren’t we just trying to be like men? What’s to gain?” While I understand where they’re coming from, I choose another path. We have many more opportunities to learn Torah than we did in the past. We are finally able to come to a synagogue on Shabbat where there are children’s groups, babysitting, and learning for all. One reason why I learned to read from the Torah was to show my grandchildren that you must never stop learning. What is deemed acceptable should be grabbed onto.

True story: The year was 1971 and I was a young married woman in Chicago and we belonged to an Orthodox synagogue. When Simchat Torah arrived, the dancing spilled out of the synagogue and on to the sidewalk where I was given a Torah to hold while women sang and danced around me. That powerful memory stayed with me.

Fast forward to 1987 and I was living in Atlanta, Georgia. Simchat Torah arrived and again, I attended an Orthodox synagogue. I approached one of the rabbis and asked if the women could take a Torah and dance on our side of the mechitza. The rabbi replied with an emphatic “no.” I explained that women had danced with it in Chicago when I was younger and it was time to include women in ways that would be acceptable to Jewish law. He laughed and told me I was living in the past and that the influence from the free and easy ’60s won’t be felt again.

Well, Rabbi, I have lived to see some changes…and so have you! I look forward to dancing with and reading from the Torah this year in our Orthodox synagogue in Atlanta!

For more suggestions about engaging women on Simchat Torah in Orthodox congregations, check out JOFA’s webinar featuring Rabbi Starr, along with Aliza Abrams Konig, Toby Goldfisher Kaplowitz, and Sari Steinberg. 

Make sure to check out Meta’s recent novel, The Fruitfly Rabbi, available for purchase on Amazon!

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