Orthodox school in N.Y. allows girls to pray with tefillin

NEW YORK (JTA) — An Orthodox high school in New York City is allowing girls to wear tefillin.

Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, principal of the SAR High School in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, last month began to allow two female students to wear tefillin, or phylacteries, during a women’s daily prayer service. The development was first reported in the school newspaper, The Buzz.

The newspaper reported that it remains unclear whether the decision, announced in an email in December to students and faculty, will apply to the entire student body and whether it’s only applicable in all-female services.

“When you change, then it causes machloket,” Harcsztark told The Buzz, using the Hebrew word for disagreement. “And I feel like this has caused enough machloket for right now.”

Harcsztark later issued a brief statement to JTA acknowleding that while it is not common in the Orthodox community, there is a basis in Jewish law for the practice of women wearing tefillin. “I felt it appropriate to create a space at SAR for tefilah that is meaningful for them,” he said.

While it has become common in the Conservative movement for women to don tefillin, it remains a controversial practice in the Orthodox world, where many believe it is a violation of Jewish law, or halachah.

Judy Heicklen, the president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and a parent at SAR, said she knows of only two other Orthodox schools in North America that have discussed whether to let girls don tefillin, both of which decided against it.

Outside of day schools, the issue of women seeking to wear tefillin is something that “comes up occasionally” but is not a “hot-button issue” among Orthodox feminists, Heicklen said. However, she welcomed SAR’s decision.

“I’m pleased whenever there’s an expansion of anyone’s ability to connect with God in a way that is halachically permissible,” she said.

“I’m proud of SAR for going out on a limb to help support these girls.”

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