"Anyone who walked in now would be unable to guess.” That’s what I thought when the tall newlywed with Sabra Hebrew and religious- school fluency was reading the haftara from the men’s side of the synagogue.

Young, a recent graduate of the hesder military program that includes years of Torah study, he read the selection from the Prophet Zechariah that goes along with the Torah portion Beha’alotcha, “Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion… ”

How appropriate. Minutes before, his wife of a few days was called up to the Torah, too. Also a Sabra, her hair was pulled back under a bright silk scarf. Before that, her mother and grandmother also had aliyot; her older married sister chanted the Torah portion.

Shabbat Sheva Brachot, the celebration of the joining in holiness of a beautiful young couple, can never be called anything as prosaic as “business as usual.” But 12½ years after the founding of Kehillat Shira Hadasha, the flow of men and women taking part in the service from their respective sides of the mehitza is indeed the usual way it’s done. Poignant – not pouting or protesting.

Moving and merry – not militant. A grownup synagogue which has taken its place in the Jerusalem landscape.

Shira Hadasha will be hosting a conference next week to mark its “coming of age,” fittingly halfway between bat and bar mitzva. Members of so-called “partnership minyanim” – Orthodox congregations that have moved to models of greater equality, without abandoning the tenets of halachic Judaism – are attending.

Twenty congregations are listed on the brochure; most are in Israel. Who knew so many Shira Hadasha-like congregations existed? I don’t want to explore the halachic decisions of partnership minyanim in this space. You can read the weighty discussion on Shira Hadasha’s website, and find many dissenting opinions on the Internet if you’re seeking them. Print them, grapple with them at home on Shabbat, just beware: women’s issues quickly become heated.

While our tradition accords women greater insight and foresight than men, and though prayer is modeled after a biblical woman and not a man, women are often castigated for wanting a greater role in synagogue life. The change can be frightening to men and women alike.

My personal halachic posek, or decisor, is Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber, whose approach dovetails with that of Shira Hadasha. I recommend his Congregational Dignity and Human Dignity: Women and Public Torah Reading.

I’d rather think of my personal experience vis-à-vis being a member of this special congregation. I’ve been at Shira Hadasha since the beginning, so it’s a bat mitzva of sorts for me, too.

For 17 years before the establishment of Shira Hadasha, I belonged to a neighborhood Orthodox synagogue. My husband was more comfortable in an early morning service even closer to our home, but we decided that every other Shabbat he would join our children and me so that we would have a more serious family presence in the congregation. Presence could be determined on the men’s side of the mehitza, the gender-dividing curtain.

I sat with friends. The kids had classmates to play with. The service was meticulous and fast, so I could get Shabbat lunch on the table in plenty of time.

On the women’s side I found my place. An activist by disposition, I volunteered for social committees open to women and organized a Remembrance Day walk that became a tradition. I found a way to express my liberal minority voice on issues, although it was largely overruled. When a congregant arrived in shul with her arm in a sling after domestic abuse, I wanted her husband excluded. I protested the rabbi’s inflammatory political talk. I opposed attitudes of cliquey goodwives, tried to fix the coldness to newcomers, offered my living room when a speaking engagement was withdrawn to the late Yeshayahu Leibowitz (a beloved memory for my now grown-up children).

You only stay 17 years because you have a comfort level, and because changing synagogues isn’t easy. “Where do you daven?” is an identity question, like “Where do your children go to school?” as much as the amount of hair you show under your hat when you are in the religious community.

My children found their way to youth movement services of young peers, my husband returned to his fellow early risers, but still I remained.

But I knew it was wrong: The women’s section was getting to me. Not that I minded sitting among women; I prefer exercising among women, so of course I prefer praying among women, too. But nothing good was happening for me there. Even such non-controversial activities as saying “amen” at the right intervals when Kaddish was said on the men’s side, kissing the Torah on its journey to and from the ark, or dancing behind the curtain on Simhat Torah weren’t observed.

After renovations, I was recruited to the new mehitza committee, and was thoughtfully fingering the existing curtain when a young woman yanked it from my hand lest anyone be exposed. I kid you not.

Looking back, I needed that yank. It came just around the time professors Tova Hartman and Eli Holzer, both Jerusalemites with three daughters each, met at a conference in New York and realized that both held similar visions of a synagogue which expressed their belief in greater gender equality. Other elements: spiritual singing, warm welcomes and hospitality, as part of a world in which the women’s side of the mehitza would have presence, too.

My first Shabbatot in Shira Hadasha were outside my comfort zone. Ironically, I found myself keeping track of the hemlines, necklines and chapeaux of my fellow women congregants and the legions of guests… just the habits I’d disdained in my previous congregation. This judgmental trait was particularly active when curious friends from my old shul came by.

I also noted that from my stance as a synagogue liberal, I had suddenly metamorphosed into the staid matron in the hat, who questioned the status of the lettuce at potluck community suppers and argued against changes in the original prayer boundaries between men and women.

I don’t mind a role as a somewhat cautious elder, but don’t like that censorious side.

I’m happy to report that I’ve tamped it down. That’s part of what happens in Shira Hadasha – it brings out the good. The experience of the women’s side of the mehitza is so exhilarating that I have gradually expanded the radius of my personal comfort zone. You’ll find lots of veterans of other congregations – yes, even wives of well-known Orthodox rabbis – who admit that they like synagogue for the first time at Shira Hadasha.

Women show up in an equal number for all the services, and are engaged in leading and following prayer, in giving and hearing Torah talks, in celebrating with a bride or comforting the bereaved. On joyous occasions, candies are tossed from both sides of the curtain. The congregation has become a magnet for women Torah scholars and activists, and Orthodox men who like the more equitable arrangement. They share their ideas in the weekly Torah talks given by congregation members. Greeters at the door welcome first-timers and old-timers no matter how they’re dressed, or whether they know from which side to open the siddur.

“I personally don’t need it,” women will often tell me when we’re talking about partnership minyanim. But it often turns out, further in the conversation, that these women don’t go to synagogue much and don’t enjoy their experience when they do. Maybe I didn’t need Shira Hadasha 30 years ago, or maybe my consciousness hadn’t been sufficiently raised to realize what I needed, or what I wanted and could have.

Next week’s conference deals with both ideological and practical issues, on topics like achieving meaningful prayer, with a workshop for those who want to practice their skills as prayer leaders.

One interesting discussion at next week’s conference will be led by people in their 20s, whose parents were members of Shira Hadasha and other partnership minyanim, allowing them to grow up with a different model of Judaism. Like the bride and her three sisters.

The bride was going to mention it in the Torah talk she’d planned to give at the service. But she was so overcome with emotion and thanksgiving, tears were all she could offer. The groom stepped up and offered to read it for her – an offer she accepted. They’d obviously written the talk together, which seemed to me a promising beginning to the ever-evolving partnership called marriage.

The public is invited to take part in the Shira Hadasha Conference of Partnership Minyanim, June 19- 21, Beit Yehudit Community Center, 12 Emek Refaim Street, German Colony in Jerusalem. For further information, contact, office@shirahadasha.org.il
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.


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