We are waiting, the wind blowing as the sun sets too early on this November Friday night in Kfar Adumim. We congregate next to this small Judean Desert community’s dusty multipurpose mobile home, used for anything from piano lessons to yoga to small gatherings.
A man arrives, freshly showered. “You’re number six,” he’s told, and he sits to chat with his neighbors. Waiting.
Inside the caravan, a makeshift synagogue is ready. With an aron kodesh and lectern at the head, an almost transparent mehitza divides the room equally into men’s and women’s sections. On the far side from the door sit a few men and children, on the other side a few women and children.
Even if the women were counted in this minyan — which they are not — there’s no help with the quorum to be found on their side.
Outside, families pass by, walking to the main synagogue, where no doubt a minyan was long met. And we wait, until slowly, there are more than enough men, and a smattering of women, to begin.
An elegantly dressed fortysomething blonde stands at the head of the congregation, where she finally begins the partnership minyan’s monthly Kabbala Shabbat service.
More men, now the majority, trickle in, lending their grounding tenor and bass to the leader’s soprano. Her four-year-old son detaches himself from his praying father and wanders up to his mother. He stands with her, holding on to her skirt as she sings.
For this group worshiping in Kfar Adumim, a mixed religious-secular West Bank settlement of some 600 families near the Dead Sea, the minyan is not just another place to pray on Shabbat. Its existence is a statement, a struggle, and fraught with controversy — both internally and in the broader Orthodox movement.
But from this small Israeli community to established congregations in North America, and even a new congregation launched this weekend in London, the partnership minyan phenomenon is spreading. And at a time when the now infamous Pew Report seemingly predicts the coming death of the United States’ Conservative movement, the partnership minyanim are absorbing its elite and walking a fine line, staying just this side of the Orthodox spectrum.
The minyanim began sporadically in the early 2000s in individual houses and in space at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, with a grassroots, lay-led Orthodox style of prayer. They push halachic boundaries to include women and are noted for their serious prayer and their welcoming atmosphere — all keys to their increasing popularity.
Just to what extent women are included — and with how much halachic adherence — differs from community to community, but most base their practices on what is largely considered the first established partnership minyan, Jerusalem’s landmark Orthodox, feminist congregation, Shira Hadasha, which began in 2002.
One of the founders, Dr. Tova Hartman, says she didn’t initially intend to become a prayer pioneer.
“I tried to make changes in regular [Orthodox] shuls and didn’t succeed and said if they’re not changing then we must make something new,” says Hartman en route to class at Ono Academic College in Kiryat Ono near Tel Aviv, where she teaches education and psychology.
The changes the daughter of innovative Rabbi David Hartman pressed for included women leading prayer when halachically permissible, reading aloud the weekly Torah portion, and being counted in an expanded definition of a minyan, which would require ten men and ten women.
“When I was thinking about it, many people said to me, ‘Nobody has a need for it… If they’d needed it, it would have started already.’ Or — that a great rabbi needs to do it or it will fail,” she says.
Back then she replied, “I wish someone else would start it, but I will not wait anymore until someone else, great as he may be, will.”
In late 2001, Hartman invited 20 like-minded people to her home, a mix of students, teachers, and interested acquaintances. After three meetings the group decided to launch an experimental minyan in a community center in Jerusalem’s German Colony neighborhood.
That first Shabbat some 100 people participated. The minyan has never left.
It is difficult to count the number of active partnership minyanim around the globe, but the Shira Hadasha website has a list, and JOFA, the Jewish Feminist Orthodox Alliance, also attempts to keep track.
“If you look at the spread, it is not even, there’s no balance. There are clusters, and then in some places there are none,” says JOFA executive director Elana Maryles Sztokman. “They spread because a person brings it. It’s imported from a previous one, with a person for whom the minyan is a crucial part of his or her identity.”
A founder of Modiin’s Kehillat Darchei Noam partnership minyan, in November 2011, Sztokman published “The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World.” The book includes over fifty in-depth interviews between the sociologist and modern Orthodox men who are involved in partnership minyanim around the world.
“Once you’ve experienced it you can’t move back,” many men told her.
And while the minyanim are most often found in large cities in Israel and the United States, Sztokman notes they also flourish on college campuses.
“Academia is the outlet of the cerebral who aren’t encouraged to be poets or artists and must express their creativity through more academic means. Orthodox men are socialized into the cerebral — this minyan is a form of rebelliousness,” she says during a recent stay in Israel.
“I think that Orthodox Jews who go to a partnership minyan are more courageous than other religious Jews, a little less scared of the invisible ‘they,'” says Sztokman.
Denominational labeling is passé
An old, tired joke tells of a Jew being rescued on a deserted island where he had built two synagogues. “Why two?” ask his rescuers, “One is the synagogue I attend. The other? I wouldn’t set foot in it!”
Denominational labels are exceedingly important in organized Judaism. In calling themselves Orthodox, participants in the fledgling partnership minyan movement are balancing on a tightrope strung between those who accept them and those who call them the pejorative “reformim.”
At the crux of the matter is both the partnership minyanim’s liberal inclusion of women and the fact that many of its first female Torah readers came from the Conservative movement.
Since women reading Torah in Orthodox institutions is, even today, a rare occurrence, most women of an Orthodox background don’t have the necessary skills to be active participants in a partnership minyan. Many of the first Shira Hadasha female leaders and readers came from a traditional Conservative background in which institutions like Camp Ramah taught them those skills.
“We were nurtured by the Conserative and Reform movements; they were the first to allow women to read. I have a lot a lot of gratitude and I appreciate what they’ve done for us,” says Hartman diplomatically.
As discussed in the Jewish press post-Pew Report and surrounding the Conservative movement’s centennial conference, the “Conservative elite” — often children of Conservative rabbis or cantors who are dedicated to serious prayer, halachic tradition, and equal roles for women — have increasingly either created their own independent minyanim, which still largely adhere to Conservative theology and practice, or have jumped to more Orthodox forums through liberal Orthodoxy, and especially the partnership minyanim.
“Conservative elite young people are being lost to modern Orthodoxy,” says Jeffrey S. Gurock, professor of American Jewish history at Yeshiva University. “At Shira Hadasha, if you look who participates, they come from traditional backgrounds; mostly Americans. It’s a good transnational example.”
Though they may have found a meeting of the minds in partnership minyanim, many of these “elite” deflect labels and may pray in several varied synagogues, often calling themselves “post-denominational.”
Who are the post-denominational?
Those who are “exercising their freedom of religion in America to define themselves outside the religious camp. Those for whom denominations are unhelpful, and their identity has transcended denominational lines,” says Steven M. Cohen, a research professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
The post-denominational label straddles the gray area between liberal Orthodoxy and Conservative Judaism.
In adhering to full egalitarianism, which sets it apart from liberal Orthodoxy, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer’s Mechon Hadar is a flagship member of the Conservative side of the post-denominational movement.
Kaunfer, the son of a Conservative rabbi, was ordained by the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. In his 2010 book, “Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities,” he discusses the emotional journey he took from mainstream Conservative Judaism to becoming unaffiliated, and eventually helping found a booming independent minyan in New York, which sent him to rabbinical school.
In a conversation at this year’s President’s Conference in Jerusalem, Kaunfer explained the workings of the seriously practicing and deeply egalitarian Mechon Hadar.
When asked how the institution identifies, he says some 30% of the students are from an Orthodox background, but that labels are not helpful. “Orthodoxy is the strongest brand, but most don’t identify,” he says.
What is clear is his clarion call for egalitarian access to the Torah.
“Why should Torah be the only area that men and women aren’t on equal footing? Torah can be a critique of modernity,” says Kaunfer.
While some Conservative Jews find Kaunfer’s disassociation with the movement while touting its philosophies a slap in the face, others say the post-denominational label is understandable and natural.
“In the milieu that we find ourselves in, the denominational labels don’t mean as much. We live in a society that is like video on demand, there’s no channel loyalty; they want the product when they can get it,” says the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Rabbi Charles E. Savenor.
Savenor admits to a growing dissatisfaction among some educated lay leaders in the movement at their impotency within an overwhelmingly less observant Conservative community. He says the challenge is to harness the independent minyan model and fold it into the mainstream synagogue.
“More important than the numbers is the model of passionate, purpose-driven Judaism that they send us. They are, in effect, little start-ups,” says Savenor via cellphone while on a speeding interstate train. “In some ways they’ve been spiritual laboratories we can learn from.”
Savenor doesn’t see the members of the independent minyanim or the partnership minyanim housed on Conservative premises — and there are a number — as lost to the movement.
“Once you’re sharing space, relationships can be formed. There’s a mutual benefit for these minyanim having a place to meet, and the new passion seeps through the hallways,” says Savenor.
Fellow Conservative movement leader Rabbi Loren Sykes, a new immigrant to Israel and the head of the Shirley & Jacob Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, is less upbeat about the elite’s defection.
“These folks grew up at Conservative synagogues, at Ramah camps, at Schechter schools, and are ordained at our institutions, but for whatever reason choose not to identify, and in many cases, aren’t willing to acknowledge the foundation that created the opportunity and passion that they have,” says Sykes, voicing a frustration felt by some in the current Conservative leadership.
“There’s a reason why statements in the Talmud have four or five rabbis — it shows you are connected to a tradition. To make the case or claim that this is your own creation or that you’re totally out of the context is not how I approach things,” says Sykes.
For those elites who have abandoned fully egalitarian prayer for a “compromise” in partnership minyanim, adopting the label of “Orthodox” makes an enormous difference in the mainstream acceptance of the fledgling movement.
Rabbi Andy Katz, a founder of Beersheba’s Kehilat Be’erot, puts it like this: “I do think that in a world in which the average Jew basically looks at Reform, Conservative and Orthodox like ordering a small soda, a medium soda and a large soda, as a matter of branding, if you are trying to connect to a ‘large soda Judaism,’ then you want to use the term ‘Orthodox.'”
Katz grew up Reform, studied in the Conservative Yeshiva, and as he progressed in his learning, found himself in liberal Orthodox institutions such as Pardes, where he was eventually ordained.
“‘Liberal Orthodoxy’ works much better than ‘frum [observant] Conservative’: [One is] proud of the badge of liberal Orthodox and ashamed of the identity of Conservative because of the way the brand was devalued,” says Katz, now a Jewish educator.
“The failure of the Conservative movement is if you were an observant Conservative Jew, you felt you could only become a rabbi or find a very liberal Orthodox shul,” says Katz, who himself once contemplated JTS for rabbinical school.
But the minyanim members’ use of the word “Orthodox” can be vastly different from that of a Yeshiva University faculty member’s definition.
“One of the debates at Shira Hadasha and Be’erot in Beersheba is: Are we part of modern Orthodoxy anymore? Sometimes we’re not sure we’re considered part of modern Orthodoxy. Sometimes we’re not sure we want to be considered part of modern Orthodoxy,” says Ehud Zion Waldoks, a former Shira Hadasha member who now lives in Beersheba and attends Be’erot.
“Some would say we’re the avante garde of a new path. Others would say we’ve gone beyond the pale,” says Zion Waldoks.
Katz’s and Zion Waldoks’s Beersheba community was originally meant to be the home of Rabbi Asher Lopatin, the new head of liberal Orthodoxy’s Yeshivat Chovevei Hatorah. Lopatin was unable to make aliya, and was subsequently tapped to follow Rabbi Avi Weiss to lead the vanguard controversial Open Orthodoxy institution.
Days after his installation, Lopatin muses on the meaning of partnership minyanim.
“People in partnership minyanim are courageous — they want to be part of Orthodoxy, they’re keeping the mehitza, don’t let women do everything, very yirei shamayim [fearing God]. They want to do the right thing and it’s slowly catching on.”
Lopatin says he would definitely rely on the scholars who have checked the halachic questions involved and has participated in several minyanim.
“I consider partnership minyanim, with a mehitza, within the fold of Orthodoxy: They’re following halacha and following the psak [legal position] of a recognized halachic authority. Partnership minyanim are definitely part of the Orthodox world,” he says.
He compares the current status of partnership minyanim as seen in the broader Orthodox community with another, now fully accepted prayer group.
“Twenty years ago, when I was at Yeshiva University, we were talking about women’s tefila groups, saying, ‘Maybe one day they’ll be normative, not now.’ But now they are.”
Lopatin’s institution is often on the firing lines of Orthodox Jews to the right of YCT and its sister institution Yeshivat Maharat, which recently ordained its first class of female clergy. His invitation to rabbinic leaders from other, more liberal, movements to his installation caused an uproar in ultra-Orthodox circles.
Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman of the ultra-Orthodox Agudah organization, has attacked Lopatin in several blogs on The Times of Israel, and in response to a query, wrote, “I think that the ‘Open Orthodoxy’ movement, under whose umbrella ‘Yeshivat Maharat’ and YCT reside, is engaging in false advertising by claiming the adjective ‘Orthodox.'”
Lopatin is bewildered by such attacks.
“The Orthodox community is so strong and there’s more fear than ever. I hope we’re not driven by fear. Let’s do the right thing and have a little confidence in halacha and Torah that if we’re following Torah and halacha that things will be okay.
“Some feel like Torah should be sheltered because it’s not strong enough to survive in this world: Have a little faith — Torah is strong,” he says.
While the partnership minyanim are still handled with care by the mainstream Orthodox establishment, he does see some progress.
“I do know several established Orthodox synagogues that have allowed people to rent some space, even in a building that is associated with the shul,” says Lopatin.
But for Hartman, a founder of Shira Hadasha, the whole debate about being called “Orthodox” is unimportant.
“I don’t find any term people use to define me as insulting; I don’t care. If they’re concerned about a slippery slope, I always say there is a slippery slope, but it goes upward to God. The Jewish people have overdosed on who’s in and who’s out. I’d like to suggest a moratorium of definitions. I suggest people look inward and not outward,” she says.
British Commonwealth: Little ‘c’ conservative
“I’ve been around the partnership minyan idea before it even started,” says Rabbi Marty Lockshin by telephone from his York University office.
The Jewish Studies professor explains he was on sabbatical in Israel in 1999-2000 when he was asked to read a defense of women reading Torah by rabbi/lawyer Mendel Shapiro.
“I have to admit I was totally skeptical when I started to read it, but I thought he made convincing arguments and told him to publish,” says Lockshin. That essay, along with Rabbi Daniel Sperber’s treatise on public dignity, has since become the cornerstone of the halachic defense of partnership minyanim.
Lockshin was born and raised in Toronto and ordained at Jerusalem’s Yeshivat Harav Kook. He is the volunteer rabbi of Toronto’s partnership minyan collective, which began in 2008, and also a rabbinic adviser to Kol Sasson in Skokie, Illinois.
Toronto’s Jewish community is notoriously “small c” conservative, and its “big C” Conservative synagogues are surprisingly retro in terms of women’s roles.
‘Until five years ago, the only thing that was different between Orthodox and Conservative was mixed seating’
“Until five years ago, we had more roles for women than most of the Conservative synagogues in Toronto. I bumped into the rabbi of one of the largest Conservative synagogues in Starbucks and he said, ‘Marty, you’re making all sorts of problems for me.'”
“Until five years ago, the only thing that was different between Orthodox and Conservative was mixed seating: They weren’t counting women in a minyan five years ago,” he says.
When Lockshin, now 62, was a child, he says he remembers being told at age 5 or 6 that women could become doctors. He remembers laughing. As a boy, his world conception didn’t allow for women in leadership roles.
“Then it was easy for women to sit behind the mehitza and not have a role — and thank God that has changed,” says Lockshin.
He explains his impetus in being a leader in the global partnership minyan phenomenon: In a world in which women are integrated into the workforce and are authority figures, it is impossible to marginalize them from prayer.
“This sense that women have to be more involved in ritual is just a sense of what has to be done,” says Lockshin. But he qualifies, “I go to shul every morning, and if there isn’t a woman who has lost a parent [and is saying kaddish], it’s a boy’s club. And it shouldn’t be that way.”
He feels the minyanim, in addition to being a catalyst for Toronto’s Conservative synagogues, have also created a wave of necessary change in global liberal Orthodoxy. They, he feels, are behind the push for more women’s Torah readings and classes at mainstream Orthodox synagogues.
“If they don’t [attempt to include women], Orthodoxy will become smaller and smaller, because it’s so out of ‘think’ with the rest of the world,” he warns.
Toronto’s Jewish community is concentrated in three major clusters. The partnership minyan there found in its first planning meetings that potential worshippers, mostly from Orthodox backgrounds and the “Conservative elite” raised in Camp Ramah, obviously do not drive on Shabbat and would not be able to gather as one minyan.
They decided to set up three locations, north, south and central (which was eventually phased out aside from on holidays in which driving is permissible). They rent space from a Jewish institution that caters to the developmentally disabled, and a moribund Conservative synagogue. The north and south locations each meet once a month, with some 40-70 people in attendance.
“We’ve not been able to take the next step of meeting every week, so for three out of four weeks, members go to a shul where women have no role,” says Lockshin. “If we manage to take the step of finding the person power and volunteer power to move to every week, then this would have a snowball effect.”
Across the ocean in England, on the weekend of November 15, a new London partnership minyan had its maiden voyage.
In Borehamwood, a newer thriving Jewish settlement at the outskirts of London, the new initiative was launched with Friday night and Shabbat day services. Though no one involved in the organization of the minyan would speak with The Times of Israel, its website gives some background information and advertises a lecture series.
‘Education is the key to giving women access. Education is a necessity even before the minyan can take place’
This is not the first Shabbat partnership minyan that has been attempted in London: There was an initiative a few years ago in Finchley that was reportedly reasonably popular, but proved to be overwhelming for the volunteer organizers.
Even more than in Toronto, London’s Jewish community is very geographically dispersed. One way the city’s partnership minyan community is broadening its base is through Rosh Hodesh services, to which participants can drive.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity because there’s Torah reading and Hallel, creating a lot of opportunity for women,” says Dr. Miri Freud-Kandel, a fellow in Modern Judaism at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.
Freud-Kandel, whose doctorate is on Orthodoxy in British Jewry since 1913, explains that the pool of women who are qualified to lead services, however, is currently not large enough.
“Education is the key to giving women access. Education is a necessity even before the minyan can take place,” she says.
Elsewhere, most burgeoning minyanim pull female readers and leaders from the Conservative movement or from those who have gone through an Orthodox bat mitzvah. Even today, the flagship Conservative synagogue in London has a women’s balcony, an indication of its lag in institution egalitarianism. Also, Camp Ramah, where most North American women learned to lead, is not a player there.
“In terms of bat mitzvahs, halevai — I wish. It happens, I’m certainly not saying it doesn’t happen, but it’s not nearly as widespread as it should be,” says Freud-Kandel.
Indeed, there was a recent Jewish media fracas in England over the issue of Orthodox bat mitzvahs after popular columnist Angela Epstein wrote a controversial column saying essentially that though her daughter thinks she’ll have a celebration on par with her older brothers’ bar mitzvahs, she is set to be bitterly disappointed.
Freud-Kandel expresses frustration with the pace of progress in women’s issues, but explains since British Jewry has a centralized chief rabbinate and one official newspaper, everything about the community has been centralized and controlled. “When you create the situation of central dominance you crush the opportunity for creativity,” she says.
She explains that traditionally the way British Jews identified as Jewish was through synagogue membership, but in the past two decades there’s been a growth of the emergence and understanding of a cultural Jewish identity, pointing to the recent opening of the Jewish Community Center, JW3.
‘There is no need to wait and seek permission’
“What’s important is it’s offering a means of being Jewish without being in a synagogue — and the partnership minyan is not tied to a synagogue,” says Freud-Kandel.
“It feels like a seminal moment, a really important moment in Anglo Jewish history in terms of moving things forward,” says Freud-Kandel. “Now is the time to just take advantage of the developments happening elsewhere. There is no need to wait and seek permission. If there are women who want to create these opportunities, the only way is to go and do it, make facts upon the ground; they’re not prepared to wait for the synagogues to catch up.”
What about the children?!
“I was progressive on a lot of issues, but actually at one point I did write against women having aliyot. To be frank, I have forgotten my opposition,” admits Rabbi Daniel Landes, director of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, which hosted one of the first partnership minyanim.
“When the notion came to Pardes, not only did I know about it, I also supported and sponsored it. Not supported in the abstract, but as one of the consequences of Jewish leadership, participated and took aliyot,” he says.
Landes, whose work is largely with young cross-denominational Jews from North America interested in deepening their understanding of the Jewish tradition, says these minyanim are a way to bridge egalitarianism and classic Orthodoxy.
“I come from Chicago, and there it’s the art of the deal — ‘compromise’ is not a treif word. When everyone wins, everyone ‘loses’ a little bit… It’s hard to give valance for the loss, but there’s sense that you want to give something up for the greater good — Jewish unity and unity for something important, for God,” says Landes.
The seven-year-old Minyan Urim at Yale University is an example of a partnership minyan as a bridge. Senior Leah Sarna, a current gabbai, agrees with Landes.
“At Yale one of the things we take pride in is our partnership minyan that allows people who are friends to also daven together, which is a trademark of Jewish communities. It’s really nice that there’s a minyan that can bring people together,” says Sarna.
But do these minyanim have staying power?
Landes reflects before answering.
“It’s a hard issue. The resolution could take many forms: one could be that these minyanim are made for an age group. Then you get older, have more kids, grow up and make a better shul. They might be like an incubation leadership project,” says Landes.
“Is it really in the end a one-generation deal? We already have one example of a failed movement: I saw as a young child the rise and now the rapid decent of Conservative Jewry,” says Landes.
For Sarna it is more a question of seriousness.
“Is a partnership minyan a must for me at this point? No, I think what I’m looking for more is a daily minyan where I won’t be the only woman there every day,” she says.
In Beersheba, Zion Waldoks is hopeful that through being raised in such a community, his daughters will be among those joining Sarna in weekday prayer.
“The presence of a partnership minyan was a prerequisite for our move to Beersheba, for us, but just as much for our children. As the father of two girls (and a boy), I cannot begin to tell you how amazing it is that the basic assumptions my daughters have about what constitutes prayer and leading the service come from this model. My daughters will always assume that a woman can be a shlihat tzibbur, read from the Torah, get an aliya and more because they’ve seen their mother do all those things for their whole lives,” Zion Waldoks says.
“It still moves me watching my daughters stand next to their mother as she leads services, whether at Be’erot or Shira Hadasha,” he adds.
Founded in 2002, Jerusalem’s Shira Hadasha has been in business long enough to raise children in the community. When asked about the “next generation” there, Hartman replies, “The next generation is coming up with many creative options, some leaving mitzvot, some adding mitzvot.
“We don’t know what will be in the next generation and there are many who are going on a creative spiritual path: The Torah is given again in every generation,” she says.
Is the partnership minyan phenomenon a new movement?
“Can I just say, let’s wait and see? Right now there’s an intensity without pervasiveness. Right now, for the most part, it’s just for us, but the intention is to offer an alternative to less traditional forms of Orthodoxy,” says Prof. Gurock, who sits on the board of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.
“I don’t know if its a new movement but it’s ‘a re-positioning of American Jews.’ Movement is too strong because it’s too small; they have found people of common spirit,” says Gurock.
‘I’m not sure they’re about to change the world, they’re looking for a comfort zone’
“The people who are in Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, in Yeshivat Maharat tend to support places like Mechon Hadar; they’re more or less in the same camp — egalitarian Orthodox, Open Orthodox — people who have found themselves in a similar religious place,” he says.
“I’m not sure they’re about to change the world; they’re looking for a comfort zone. When you’re talking about a movement, you talk in terms of numbers, but the numbers aren’t there,” says Gurock.
Even Shira Hadasha founder Hartman doesn’t like to talk in terms of movement.
“No, I don’t know what it means to be a movement; shuls are very eclectic. There’s no A, B, C, D and now there’s another box called Shira Hadasha,” she says.
The numbers may not be there now, but as the phenomenon gains more traction, the question remains what Orthodoxy will do with it.
“I don’t know what the ultimate beit knesset will look like 100 years from now; we’re not sure where it will coalesce. But to be outside of the process is impossible,” says Pardes director Landes.
Seeds of change
Nestled in the verdant Judean Hills just outside of Jerusalem is Efrat, the “capital” of the Gush Etzion settlements. Here, most residents would consider themselves modern Orthodox, and the label “reformi” is one of the most derogatory terms you could call a religious person.
Efrat’s chief rabbi is the American-born Rav Shlomo Riskin, the founding rabbi of New York’s popular Orthodox Lincoln Square Synagogue, who made aliya to Efrat in 1983. (Perhaps indicating where Lincoln Square falls on the Orthodox spectrum today, its current rabbinic intern is Yeshivat Chovevei Torah student Benjamin Elton.)
Riskin, though 100% mainstream modern Orthodox, is well known as a champion of women’s rights and has, within the framework of halacha, carefully pushed boundaries and gained important reforms for religious women in Israel. Though not an advocate of partnership minyanim, for several decades he has permitted women’s readings of Megilat Esther. He has also advocated for prenuptial agreements to prevent the potential problem of agunot, and petitioned the Supreme Court to accept women legal advisers on religious councils.
It is not shocking, therefore, that a neighborhood Efrat minyan is pushing the boundaries and beginning to make subtle, but to some, shocking, changes to its religious practice. All under Riskin’s auspices.
‘We are not egalitarian, but of course people call us “reformim” — rebels’
Called Zemer Hazayit, the minyan, currently housed in a local school, has many similarities with partnership minyanim, but it prefers to call itself “a synagogue that gives more room to women.”
In this small minyan of about 30 families who meet every Shabbat and holiday, there is a mehitza down the middle, stopping before the aron kodesh, which is visible to both genders. Women give sermons and may read the Haftorah portion from their side of the mehitza.
In a pivotal difference from partnership minyanim, women do not read Torah in the hearing of men but rather go to a separate room.
The first bat mitzvah was three years ago, and slowly the minyan in building a normative culture of including these girls into the Haftorah reading cycle.
“We are not egalitarian,” says one member, “but of course people call us ‘reformim’ — rebels.”
This is the minyan most pushing the envelope in Efrat, but in others there, women are giving sermons and reading from megilot.
The change here is slow and gradual, but constant.