LONDON (Mar. 4)
Only the sound of emotional tears disturbed the reverent hush of prayer last weekend as more than 60 women gathered for the first women-only Shabbat service to be sanctioned by Britain’s chief rabbi.
The historic gathering, at a private house in northwest London, was greeted with delight and not a little relief by the members of the Stanmore Women’s Tefillah Group, whose desire for their own service had sparked months of debate within the Orthodox Jewish community here.
One participant, visiting from America, where such groups flourish, said she was struck by the confidence the women displayed in conducting the two-hour service.
Confident they may have seemed, but before they began their prayers, they were still discussing how they should proceed, there being no precedent in this country to give them guidance.
“We will have to be creative,” concluded one participant, although the main concern for these Orthodox women was to remain strictly within the bounds of the halachah, or Jewish law.
Leaving husbands and sons to attend the normal Shabbat service at Stanmore Synagogue a few yards away, the women embarked on reading the weekly Torah portion from the Chumash, rather than the Torah scroll — one of the conditions sought by the chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks.
They went on to recite the traditional prayers for the royal family and the State of Israel as well as a special blessing for women, and a prayer for agunot — women who are unable to acquire a get, or religious divorce, from their husbands.
Doreen Fine, a member of the chief rabbi’s panel that reviewed the role of women, led the service, but all were encouraged to participate.
Several women were moved to tears. “It’s the most amazing thing to hear a woman leyning (reading from the Torah) if you’ve never heard it before,” said Fine.
She added: “Within the conditions, we made the absolute best of what we could.
“There was nothing the most religious person could have objected to halachically, politically or socially. It’s the first step toward establishing ourselves as a serious group of Orthodox women.”
Celia Levy, whose home provided the venue for the service and whose husband, Elkan, is an honorary officer of the United Synagogue — the central Orthodox body for British Jewry — said: “For the first time as a woman, I felt important spiritually. It was a lovely atmosphere, and such a positive experience.”
She added that the group intended to meet soon to discuss plans for future services.
In the meantime, the women were content to have taken this first step. After Fine recited Kiddush, the husbands and sons, back from the synagogue service, were invited in to be reunited with the wives and mothers who had made history.