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Behind the Headlines: Israeli Women Find ‘fulfillment’ As Orthodox Prayer Groups Grow

Raised as an Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem, Dvori Ross went to synagogue on Shabbat mornings and listened to the Torah reading from the women’s side of the mechitzah, the divider that separates men and women in Orthodox congregations.

The experience, she says, was frustrating.

“I knew that I could read the Torah myself, because my father taught all of us when my brothers were approaching their Bar Mitzvahs, but I wasn’t allowed to do so in shul because I was a woman.”

Although she knew that Reform or Conservative egalitarian prayer offered her the level of participation she sought, it was incompatible with her religiously observant lifestyle — something she wasn’t prepared to relinquish.

The answer to Ross’ dilemma came in the late 1980s — in the form of an invitation to an Orthodox women’s prayer service in Jerusalem.

The group, which based its practices on the precepts of modern Orthodoxy, was a revelation to the young Israeli.

“The idea of women’s participation wasn’t strange to me because I had heard about Reform and Conservative congregations in America,” she says.

“But finding that religious women can participate so fully is very satisfying. I don’t like being passive; I feel like I belong only when I’m taking an active role.”

The issue of women’s tefillah groups, as they are known, has prompted controversy here as well as in America. They take on particular significance around Simchat Torah, when Jews celebrate the end of the cyclical reading of the Torah.

Women’s prayer groups provide an alternative for women, who are banned from ritual leadership roles in Orthodox synagogues.

Traditionally Jewish law prohibits men from hearing women’s voices, lest they be distracted from their prayer, and does not allow women to be counted in a minyan.

Less clear is the right of women to pray or read Torah on their own.

Earlier this year, a group of Orthodox rabbis in Queens, N.Y., issued a ruling banning such groups.

Ross’ feeling of belonging in women’s tefillah groups is shared by a growing number of observant Israeli women, who during the past few years have founded several prayer groups, most of them in Jerusalem.

Debbie Weissman, an American immigrant who co-founded the first Israel-based women’s prayer group in the early 1970s, estimates that approximately 1,000 Israeli women participate in these groups.

“That’s not an overwhelming number,” she concedes, “but it’s a lot more than when we started. That number could be much higher if more women were aware of their options in halachah,” or Jewish law.

While the majority of Israeli rabbis continue to balk at the idea of religious women reading from the Torah or conducting a prayer service, a sizeable minority accept the principle and actually encourage it.

Another category of rabbis, while believing that halachah allows for a larger women’s role, don’t want that role expressed in their synagogue.

Pnina Peli, whose late husband, Pinchas, an Orthodox rabbi, encouraged his wife to hold a women’s prayer group in their home after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, says, “Many women simply take it for granted that halachah prohibits them from many roles. When they study the texts, they learn how wrong they were.”

Noting with delight that at least eight Orthodox synagogues in Israel permit women to dance with and read from the Torah on Simchat Torah, Peli says, “Many Orthodox people insist that a menstruating woman must be prevented from holding a Torah.

“What they don’t know, or refuse to admit, is that a Torah can’t be made impure, by a woman, a non-Jew, not by anyone.”

The reason why women aren’t permitted to touch or read aloud from the Torah, Peli asserts, “is due to sociological circumstances. People say it can’t be done because it hasn’t been done. That’s different from saying it’s against halachah.”

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief rabbi of Efrat, says that even when women’s participation is halachically acceptable, community sensitivities must be taken into account.

“I believe that it’s halachically permissible for women to dance with a Torah scroll behind a mechitzah,” Riskin says.

“However, the custom for thousands of years has been for women not to do so. Therefore, if it would cause a split and bad will in the synagogue, then it should not be done.”

This is why, he says, that a number of separate women’s prayer groups were formed.

Finding a balance between their own needs, the needs of the larger community and halachah “is part of the challenge,” says Ariel Lester, who organizes women’s Torah readings at the Orthodox synagogue Kehillat Yedidyah in Jerusalem, and at Shirat Sarah, a Jerusalem group that meets every six weeks.

On special occasions and on Simchat Torah, the women at Yedidyah read the Torah separately and then return to the services, which are lead by the men in their congregation.

Shirat Sarah, on the other hand, is a women-only group, and conducts its own service from start to finish.

“There’s a creative edge to working within the halachah, and I think that for those who choose to be within a halachic framework, there’s a lot of space to move and to create. It sounds paradoxical, but that’s the case.”

When women engage in serious text study and read from the Torah, she adds, “the result is both intellectual and spiritual fulfillment. It’s an expression of one’s soul.”

While acknowledging that their form of prayer isn’t for everyone, most involved in women’s prayer groups expect thousands of others to join them in the years to come.

Felicia Epstein, a leader of Shirat Sarah, says the Israeli women she encounters are intrigued by Orthodox prayer groups.

“In Israel, the religious community tends to be more conservative, so the Americans have led the movement,” Epstein says. “However, as more Israelis have become involved, the movement has taken on its own integrity.”

Nothing that about 40 percent of the 35 women who participate in Shirat Sarah are native-born Israelis, Epstein adds, “We are struggling to help the rest feel more comfortable.”

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