DC Voices for Religious Freedom — Solidarity with Women of the Wall

Hallel is my favorite prayer service. As an individual who cannot carry a tune in a satchel but loves to sing and loves the psalms, I find a Hallel [psalms 113-118] sung with gusto a great opportunity to join my off-key voice into a larger sound of praise.

So, as I watched video of Women of the Wall suffering through abuse for raising their voices in prayer on Rosh Hodesh Av and heard reports that a loud Hallel appeared to be a driving force behind the arrest of WoW Chair Anat Hoffman, I decided I would have to raise my voice…in Hallel for the new month, as a wake up call toward a more just new year and in solidarity with WoW.

Cross-Denominational Planning

Inspired by the inter-denominational crowd that turned out for a demonstration at the Israeli Embassy on July 22, organized by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, I contacted a small group of individuals to suggest a Rosh Hodesh Elul DC gathering in solidarity with WoW. Although my emails went out barely a week before Rosh Hodesh, response was immediate and positive, with a number of women indicating a similar impulse dampened by work or other constraints. We soon had a cross-denominational planning group and a terrific array of service leaders and leyners.

Members of Adas Israel Congregation, DC Minyan, Fabrangen Havurah, Ohev Shalom, Temple Micah, Zoo Minyan and other groups helped with planning and outreach. Adas Israel’s senior rabbi, Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, an active supporter of WoW, took time out from his vacation to approve use of his congregation’s Kogod Chapel.

On August 11, the second day of Rosh Hodesh Elul, women and men from across the DC area gathered for what many have called “a beautiful and powerful service.” I deliberately stood in the front, so I would not be worrying about who was coming in or out; I heard a lovely swelling of female voices behind me and the occasional sound of a male voice from the side. (Although Adas Israel does not pray with a mechitza, this service was organized in format similar to services at the Kotel; see below). I am told that — despite our small, last-minute and haphazard planning effort — there were 35-40 women and, with some coming and going, about 10-12 men.

It was a strong show of solidarity with WoW and a great demonstration of cross-community cooperation. It was an important way to begin preparations for the new year…and, Hallel was loud enough to join (i.e., drown out) my voice in a harmonious chorus of praise!

Cross-Community Prayer

On short notice, women from several communities came together to create a moving service:
—Birkhot HaShachar/Pesukei D’zimra: Rabbi Esther Lederman (Temple Micah [Reform])
—Shacharit and Hallel: Rebecca Sendor-Israel (DC Minyan [Halachic Egalitarian])
—Torah Service: Rebecca Boggs (Adas Israel [Conservative Egalitarian])
—–Torah readers: Nannette Herlands (DC Minyan) and Rose Sue Berstein (Fabrangen [independent]);
—–Gabbai: Sabrina Sojourner (Temple Micah and Temple Beth Emet [independent])
—–Musaf/Concluding Service: Rabbi Tamara Miller (Renewal)
—–Shofar: Virginia Avniel Spatz (multiple communities)

Rhoda Riztenberg and Linda Yitzchak, Adas Israel members who were instrumental in planning for the event, were among those who accepted the honor of aliyot, as were Bracha Laster and Rhonda Weiss (both of Fabrangen). Elaine Reuben of Fabrangen also provided a closing reading.

Participants in the Rosh Hodesh Elul DC service regularly worship in many Jewish settings – in synagogues across the denominations, as well as in independent congregations and havurot (fellowships). In solidarity with Women of the Wall, the August 11 service followed WoW (women’s tefillah) practice, by which women pray together under an Orthodox interpretation of halachah.

In Jerusalem, Women of the Wall pray as an entirely female group. Male supporters stand on the men’s side of the mechitza. Adas Israel, a Conservative congregation, does not employ a mechitza. Many participants, including prayer leaders, found the women’s tefillah format challenging — in advance and on the morning of Rosh Hodesh — for a variety of reasons; Adas Israel members, whether participating in the service or not, expressed concerns. Participants and planners were grateful to the host congregation for its flexibility and support. For any future gatherings, with more preparation and discussion time, practices may evolve.

Gender, Prayer and Religious Freedom

On the morning of August 11, several of us received a message from Guila Franklin Siegel, a DC-area Reconstructionist Jew who was with Women of the Wall in Jerusalem for Rosh Hodesh Elul:

I learned how hard it is to try to pray meaningfully when you are being screamed and cursed at from all sides. I learned how empowering it is to stand with other women in defiance of such hatred. I learned how gratifying it can be to hear the voices of a small but vocal group of men standing on the other side of the Kotel’s mechitza, praying the first blessing of the Amidah and saying “Elohei Sara, Elohei Rivka, Elohei Rachel, V’Elohei, Leah.” And I saw the enormous kavanah, courage, determination, and mutual support in the face of everyone who participated in the service, both men and women, and in their faces and their voices, I felt the presence of the Shechinah.

Free of the screaming and cursing experienced at the Kotel, the DC gathering was no less strengthened by participation of both men and women.

While we all know that the struggle for religious freedom is not a “women’s issue,” the presence of men at a service led by women creates halachic difficulties for some in our community. However, separating men and women or excluding men creates similar difficulties for others in the community. I believe all involved in the Rosh Hodesh Elul DC service were grateful for the patience and understanding exhibited by women and men in trying to create a prayer environment that works for all.

We still have much work to do. And, as several people commented on Rosh Hodesh: if we cannot find ways to make religious pluralism and cross-community prayer work in the much calmer environment of Washington, DC, what hope is there for the highly charged environment of Jerusalem?

Future Local Planning/Discussion

Comments and discussion here are encouraged. Guest blogs are also welcome. Contact me at songeveryday at gmail.com to discuss this option for sharing thoughts. Facebook communications can be conducted through “Rosh Hodesh Elul DC.” If there is interest, we can launch a Google group or something similar.

As soon as photos from our August 11 service available on-line, I will share those.

Standing with WoW

Women of the Wall has asked that the weeks between the 9th of Av and Simchat Torah be a “period of giving testimony of women’s participation in prayer, and especially the Torah.” They hope to inundate the Israeli government and religious leaders with 10,000 images of women teaching, study, learning, reading, embracing Torah Scrolls. Some photographs were taken on Rosh Hodesh Elul to contribute to this campaign.

Visit WoW’s website to Take a Stand with your own photo(s). WoW offers the following kavanah [intention] for women participating in this action:

“פתח ליבי בתורתך. ברכו שעשני אישה
P’tach libi b’toratecha, Barchu she asani isha
Open my heart to your Torah.
Blessed is the one who made me a woman.”

Here’s a report from “the Sisterhood” of the Jewish Daily Forward on Rosh Hodesh Elul at the Kotel. Pictures and additional reports are available on WoW website and Facebook pages.

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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages WeLuvBooks.org, blogs on general stuff a vspatz.net and more Jewish topics at songeveryday.org and Rereading4Liberation.com

2 thoughts on “DC Voices for Religious Freedom — Solidarity with Women of the Wall”

  1. I attended the service at Adas and apppreciate all work that went into it. However, in future, I do not think that our prayers should be limited because WOW is not allowed to or chooses to pray as if there is not a minyan(Orthodox practice for women?). I am not that familiar with the practice of Orthodox women but as someone saying Kaddish- we did not do the Kaddish until the end and only after a discussion of whether the presence of 10 men allowed it. As far as I know, no Orthodox women were present and without an actual Mechitza- I do not know that they would attend or pray. I think that by praying as a minyan- having that right- we stand in strong solidarity with WOW. For me, Rosh Hodesh Cheshvan- the next gathering(I think) is my final day of Kaddish for my mother. I expect to be able to say it if there are 10 people- and not because 10 men are or are not there.

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