NEW YORK – It began early last December when Salanter Akiba Riverdale High School, a modern-Orthodox Yeshiva in Riverdale, New York, allowed two female students to begin wearing tefillin at school during their morning prayers. On Tuesday, the Upper East Side modern-Orthodox school Ramaz announced it would allow its women to do the same during daily prayers should they wish to, the Jewish Week reported.
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the principal of Ramaz, told the Jewish Week that women were always allowed to wear tefillin during the weekly women-only prayer session, a practice that began in 2002. Now they will be able to do so, should they so desire, during the regular daily minyan, the principal said.
Lookstein said the first time he received a request from a woman to wear tefillin was back in the early 1990s. At the time he said no.
“If we were asked the question today – it’s 20 years later – we are in agreement that if a young woman wanted to put on tefillin and tallit, she could daven with us in our school minyan,” Lookstein said, though he noted that he has yet to actually receive such a request in the last 20 years from a woman at Ramaz.
The two students at SAR high school in Riverdale, junior Ronit Morris and sophomore Yael Marans, campaigned long and hard to be allowed to wear tallit and tefillin at their all-women’s prayer group.
Morris and Marans told their school newspaper, The SAR Buzz, that they started putting on tefillin around their bat mitzvas, but Morris said it just didn’t seem like something that women at SAR did, despite the fact that she lay tefillin at her previous school, Solomon Schechter.
Marans said she repeatedly told SAR’s principal, Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, that “I didn’t know how much I would miss davening without tefillin during the week.”
Harcsztark alerted the SAR faculty via email on December 8 that Morris and Marans would begin laying tefillin, and admitted in the email that even though the issue is “communally controversial,” he believes it is “halachically permissible.”
“These girls came to me and said that they put on tefillin every morning, that’s the way that they have been raised,” Rabbi Harcsztark told The Buzz. “It’s not a flippant attitude; it’s serious.... It’s a practice that has a halachic basis and there’s been a really strong commitment [from Ronit and Yael] to making that happen.”
This will be the first time in the 12-year history of the school that this practice will be allowed among women. The announcement has stirred controversy at SAR among students and teachers alike, many of whom wonder whether this will be a school-wide policy or will only apply to this case.
Another modern-Orthodox high school in Los Angeles, Shalhevet, is holding firm against the practice.
In an email published in the school’s online student newspaper, The Boiling Point, Shalhevet principal Rabbi Ari Segal wrote: “While there certainly exist legitimate halachic and rabbinic sources that suggest permitting the practice of women wearing tefillin (hence my willingness and desire to discuss the issue publicly and my encouraging her to wear tefillin at a synagogue), Shalhevet is a school that draws from a broad spectrum. In order to maintain that diversity, there will be times when something might be technically permitted but not wise to allow.”
The practice of wearing tallit, wrapping tefillin and reading from the Torah are big issues for prominent women’s activist groups like Women of the Wall, who have been fighting for the right of women to practice these mitzvot at the Western Wall for 25 years.