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Four and a half years ago, a woman cornered me in the supermarket to give me well-meaning if unsolicited advice about my religious practice. Rumor was that I was taking part in services at Shira Hadasha, an innovative Orthodox congregation in Jerusalem's German Colony. She'd never been there, of course, but she was certain I had taken my first steps on the proverbial slippery slope that would lead me to abandon Orthodox Judaism. She shook her head, "What a shame."
Subsequently, I received a letter from another woman criticizing the congregation and predicting that Shira Hadasha would destroy the Jewish family. Then, to the embarrassment of the hosts at a Shabbat lunch, a fellow guest, who learned I was a member of Shira Hadasha, ridiculed the hundreds of regular synagogue attendees there as "theatergoers." Interestingly, not only had she never attended a service at Shira Hadasha, but she didn't go to synagogue at all.
Clearly, something about the new congregation was generating anxiety in southern Jerusalem. At still another social gathering, two women pronounced, rather huffily, that they "didn't need such a congregation." Clearly those who did were sadly "needy."
What I needed or didn't need wasn't at all clear to me the first time I went to services at the fledgling Shira Hadasha. I just knew that I'd become spiritually dissatisfied with the synagogue I'd attended faithfully for 17 years, and should be moving on. But where to? When my children migrated to youthful congregations of Bnei Akiva, my husband returned to his beloved early morning services up our street, so I was free to explore the synagogue world of Jerusalem. Still, I didn't overcome my inertia until several public hurtful judgmental incidents upset me. There was also the proud dedication of a new synagogue building in which women's ability to see and hear was diminished.
JUST AT that time, I'd heard of a new, so-called "Orthodox egalitarian" synagogue getting organized. The prime movers of this start-up were Dr. Eli Holtzer and Dr. Tova Hartman. Both Orthodox Jerusalemites and educators, they actually met in New York, at a Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance conference. Orthodox Jewish educators and parents of daughters, they felt an unhappy dissonance between the values they were trying to inculcate and the synagogue experience. Was it possible to create a viable Orthodox synagogue experience that would allow expression for the voices and ideas of women and at the same time preserve their commitment to observance of Jewish law?
"Orthodox egalitarian," in the Shira Hadasha interpretation, means that services don't begin unless there are 10 men and 10 women, seated respectively on opposite sides of the divider. From the women's section of the synagogue, women can lead the optional prayers of the services, like Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday night and the early morning psalms on Shabbat morning. Women are called to and read Torah. Women open the ark and say Kaddish.
A detailed explanation of the halachic dimensions is best articulated in Rabbi Mendel Shapiro's article "Qeri'at ha-Torah by Women: A Halakhic Analysis," published in the Orthodox journal Edah, and subsequently Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber's article, "Congregational Dignity and Human Dignity: Women and Public Torah Reading."
The rabbinical arguments made sense. But what I discovered in Shira Hadasha was that the greater role that women played in the synagogue service spilled over into other areas of synagogue life. For instance, women members in particular were adamant about having greeters on both sides of the mehitza to welcome regular attendees and newcomers, some of whom would benefit from assistance in finding a seat or finding the page number. Women also took the lead in offering hospitality on both Friday night and Shabbat day, when all who are hungry or lonely or new in town can join a member's family for the occasion.
The reservoir of Jewish learning among both the men and women meant that there could be a dazzling variety of thoughtful ideas expounded in synagogue. A children's program and babysitters draw dozens of children and makes family participation easier. The service is meticulously run and the singing is fully participatory. Volunteer programs, particularly for the elderly, proliferate as do Torah study groups led by scholarly members of the congregation.
The Cassandras were wrong. Belonging to such a dynamic congregation was a growth experience for me, the opposite of a slippery slope.
I had my own adjustment to make. Being a member of Shira Hadasha also meant that I needed to overcome my own judgmental attitudes. In my old synagogue, no one would have dared enter without adhering to a dress code of significant sleeves and head covering, even if they went bareheaded on weekdays. I've learned that being sincerely welcoming requires accepting a broad range of dress styles, particularly in summer.
Last Shabbat, Shira Hadasha turned five. A milestone. There are already break-off congregations in Israel and Shira Hadasha-like synagogues in Australia, Europe, Canada and the United States.
On Friday night, as usual, the rows of chairs, the aisles and corners of the no-frills rented auditorium were quickly filled, both on the men's and women's sides of the mehitza. A petite mother of three small children who are used to both mommy and daddy leading services went up to the podium on the women's side. With a melodious soprano voice she began the joyful singing of the Kabbalat Shabbat service. More than 500 voices of men and women, mine included, joined in, a chorus of voices welcoming the Sabbath Queen.
No one had planned it, but there were extra rounds of Psalm 92, which has become a sort of community theme song. "It's good to be thankful to God, and to sing praise to Your exalted name, to speak of Your kindness at dawn and Your faith at night."
Thankful was exactly how I felt.