Women of the Tent: The Power of Women’s Prayer Spaces

It was a sunny winter day in Boca Raton, Florida. My mother and I approached the home where local history would be made. Shoshana would be the first bat mitzvah to lead a women’s tefillah (prayer) group for Shabbat morning in Boca Raton. As we made our way to the backyard, I thought about the location of this beautiful event — it was not in a synagogue or even in a building.

The sun shone brightly upon a beautiful tent that was decorated with green vinery and beautiful flowers.  A feeling of excitement and ease permeated the air. Women sat in anticipation in a sea of fashionable fascinators, shiny sheitels (wigs), funky mitpachot (head scarves) and stylish hats. The sea of hair coverings demonstrated the diversity of participants, most of whom had never attended the women’s tefillah group in the community (even though it  had been running for approximately 20 years).

READ: Traditional Hair Coverings for Married Women in Judaism

Before the prayers began, I thought about the setting — a tent. It made me think about the tents portrayed in the Torah. The tent of Abraham is described as open and welcoming. With four entrances, one on each side, there was no wrong way to enter his tent. Rashi comments on the fact that Sarah is nowhere to be found when guests arrive in Genesis 18:2, and explains that Sarah was in her tent because she is modest. Here we see a gendered look at the function of her tent, closed and private, as opposed to Abraham’s which couldn’t be more inviting. Respectively, I think that Rashi’s perspective does not jibe well with the text. When the guests enter Abraham’s tent, they are expecting Sarah. They are confused as to why she isn’t there. They ask for her by name. The lesson to be learned shouldn’t be that Sarah was modest, it should be that Sarah was a known leader. She was a known entity and the guests wanted to meet and have an exchange with her in person, not just through her husband.

Another famous story of a woman with a tent is Yael. She famously welcomes Sisera into her tent and puts him into a fairly deep sleep with warm milk. Soon after, she thrusts one of the tent pegs into Sisera’s forehead, killing the leader of the opposition in the battle led by Deborah. While this could serve as an example of a woman who was resourceful and served as a brave and bold soldier, instead, commentaries praise Yael for using a tent peg instead of a sword. They explain that Yael was careful as to not violate the prohibition, “A man’s item shall not be on a woman…” (Deuteronomy 22:5).

Here are two biblical examples of women leaders whose strong personalities are subdued by rabbis’ interpretation. While I would imagine that Sarah and Yael were humble, as all great leaders are, they were also assertive and confident. I would describe Shoshana, the bat mitzvah, as a young woman with humility, who is also a force to be reckoned with. She read Torah with precision, led the prayers and pronounced the words and tunes with perfection, and even shared words of explanation and Torah throughout the service. Shoshana, at the young age of 12, exercised leadership for the entire community.

READ: Why My Daughter’s Bat Mitzvah Was So Meaningful

Shoshana invited the community to take part in prayer in a tent that was wide open. Many Orthodox women in the community do not typically attend synagogue on Shabbat. On this Shabbat, because of Shoshana, the women of the community not only attended, they were engaged. Despite her obvious talent as a prayer leader, Shoshana had a way about her that was not intimidating; she had a warm smile on her face and you could tell that she was enjoying the service. Her bat mitzvah made it possible for her to connect with prayer in a deeper way, while politely challenging the community to do the same. Shoshana set a higher bar for both men and women in Boca Raton. I felt fortunate to be a part of the celebration and the momentous occasion for the Orthodox community of Boca Raton.

It took bravery for Shoshana to do this. Her local female peers have not taken on this type of venture before. She had the strong support of her parents and her brothers. Her grandfather, a Conservative rabbi, shared that he could not have imagined that one day he would teach his granddaughter to lead the prayer services. However, he recognized that in today’s world, we should properly demarcate the bat mitzvah rite of passage in an equitable way to the bar mitzvah. Shoshana’s family was supportive and proud.

Typically, I have the opportunity to attend a women’s tefillah group a few times a year. While there are a variety of venues and options for engaging women in prayer and providing active leadership roles outside of women’s tefillah groups, there is something special about the sisterhood. I find women’s tefillah groups to be beautiful and powerful experiences that I cherish, even if I am only able to attend them a handful of times a year. The feeling, the sentiment that I experienced in sunny Boca Raton, is one that I will bring with me no matter where I pray in the future.  

Learn more and read about “The Future of Women’s Tefillah,” a conversation with Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, Rabbi Chaim Marder, Morateinu Alissa Thomas-Newborn, and Pam Greenwood.

Find a women’s tefillah group in your community!

 

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