Meet the woman running unique egalitarian Sephardi prayers in Jerusalem

Revival, rejuvenation of old traditions

HEFZIBAH COHEN-MONTAGU: From ma'abara to Arnona. (photo credit: COURTESY THE FAMILY)
HEFZIBAH COHEN-MONTAGU: From ma'abara to Arnona.
(photo credit: COURTESY THE FAMILY)
Nothing prepared Heftzibah Cohen in her childhood for what she has become to her family and to the Jerusalem community she has built with partners. Nothing specific, but perhaps it was always there, even before she realized the impact of the spiritual ingredients of the tradition so dear to her.
Heftzibah Cohen-Montagu, 60, mother of three and a longtime resident of the Arnona neighborhood, was born in Givat Olga – where her family, which made aliyah from Morocco, moved after spending a few years in a ma’abara (transit camp). Her life trajectory seemed normal for a girl raised in an observant family: religious primary school, then a religious boarding school in Jerusalem for skilled girls from the periphery. Cohen-Montagu recalls that while all the girls were of Sephardi origin like her, nothing of her tradition was present and she often felt very lonely.
For a while, after she began university studies, she lived a secular lifestyle, though still searching for a path incorporating her religious beliefs and profound longing for her Sephardi background. The Degel Yehuda congregation, which embraces observant, traditional and some secular congregants attached to the Sephardi traditions, founded some 20 years ago by Yonathan Eleazar, was the perfect place for her spiritual needs.
You quickly became the leader of this community, but a woman leading a synagogue and prayers is not exactly part of the Sephardi tradition. You call it a renewal with tradition, but you actually were a groundbreaking innovator, weren’t you?
Women have always been part of life of the community around the synagogue, but personally, I am the outcome of two threads: 1) the tradition of my family, my mother and grandmother, and 2) my feminist dedication. I was raised in a Western society where feminism played a large role, but when I attended a conservative synagogue for the first time, I felt immediately that it was the right thing for me to be part of, not just as a passive spectator.
Women from an observant background who meet the Western concepts of equality and feminism often kick away religion where they feel excluded. Why didn’t this happen to you?
I never felt the need to choose between the sides. I went to Reform and Conservative synagogues, and while I could feel comfortable there, I always felt I needed to find a way to renew my Sephardi heritage and traditions. I didn’t want to renounce them. In all these places, I always felt something was missing for me.
How would you define the credo of Degel Yehuda, a unique egalitarian Sephardi minyan in Arnona-Talpiot?
I would say it is fidelity with moderation. It is fidelity to our roots and traditions, open to change but always with moderation, so that everyone can find his or her place inside. We do not question halachic traditions, we live in peace with them, we do not question regarding the public space of the synagogue; at the same time, we never question or test the private sphere of our members. But we do make space for the women who want to be an equal part of this.
Can you identify what in the Sephardic tradition could enable this?
Yes. There is a function and a meaning to the changes in the times in our tradition. Not all the Sephardi women want it, of course, but it is there. It is the understanding that changes in the society around us are relevant to us and to our halachic development. Our fidelity to our tradition is inscribed in moderation, so I could fit in so easily.
How did it develop in Degel Yehuda, which has a number of women in its leadership?
We manage to slip in every decision and step without these debates and discussions that sometimes raise anger or resentment. For us, the women of the community, we learn from our men – fathers, brothers, partners, and that’s fine with us. I learned to read from the Torah scroll for Shabbat the first time from my husband. I didn’t feel threatened, or that I was held in contempt because I didn’t know. It was a totally natural and easy process and that’s how it should be.
That’s how we began to organize the Yom Kippur prayers. We keep a halachic service, but one that enables women to be a real part of the service and the community. The first time we did it, it was such a spiritual elevation. To this day, there are days led by a significant female presence, and we did it with the strong support of the men of our community. They were there for us. I felt I was supported by the men and we had the place we wanted. That’s how I learned to read the parasha and more.
I don’t lead the Shaharit and Mussaf, although I did it a few times, but I feel I have found my place in my tradition and with my aspiration to live a full life as a woman and as a Sephardi Jew.
Where do you find the inspiration?
I read the writings of the Sephardi sages. I understand that what they wanted, and suggested, was to understand real life. And in real life, there are women. Halacha’s task is to understand the needs of the times, and it includes today the place of women, to understand their needs, their wishes, to make room for them. This comes out of the will to “walk with the life” as we say, and how can you walk with life without women? For me, what I do at Degel Yehuda is implementing the will of these sages.
Can you share your first time as a Torah reader?
It was very hard work. I read Parashat Miketz (when Joseph meets his brothers) on the occasion of the 70th birthday of my father-in-law, the late Jeremy Montagu, in his community in Oxford. It was an egalitarian minyan, but it was the first time they had a Sephardi version. My husband Simon taught me. It was frightening. I was there, holding and reading from the Torah scroll from which I had been excluded all my life until then. It was a heavy responsibility to read for the congregation, to do it well, but I managed to read it with all the exact tunes. Wrapping myself in the tallit before was a deep and moving feeling, like “under the cloud of Your honor” as it is written.
In your eyes, is it a revolution or a natural evolution?
When I think of the teachings of our Sephardi sages, even if women reading from the Torah scroll and conducting the synagogue service is not exactly what they had in mind generations ago, I am convinced this is part of their vision – that Torah is for life, and life includes women.