This Tisha B’av, Congregation Mikveh Israel observed the fast day differently than it had in previous years.
On July 16, women congregants from the synagogue recited the five books from the Scroll of Eicha, or Lamentations, to the wider congregation over Zoom.
This was the first time women publicly read from the Scroll of Eicha since Rabbi Albert Gabbai’s tenure as rabbi began in 1988, and one of a series of public readings Gabbai organized for women at the shul, including a women’s reading of the Book of Ruth and Book of Esther earlier this year.
These readings are a part of a greater initiative by women congregants at Congregation Mikveh Israel, as well as Gabbai, to engage with Jewish texts and become more spiritually involved at the synagogue.
Congregation Mikveh Israel is the oldest synagogue in Philadelphia, and it follows many Orthodox practices of Sephardic Jews, including the separation of men and women in synagogue with a mechitza, and only allowing men to read Torah and stand on the bimah; Gabbai said the shul’s creation predates the current delineations of denominations, which is why he does not consider the synagogue to be Orthodox.
About three years ago, several women from the congregation formed a women’s group, wanting to become more connected with each other, but to also gain more knowledge about Orthodox rituals.
They asked Gabbai to start giving weekly lectures to the group, which soon became twice a week to accommodate growing interest.
One of the women who helped to create the group, Rachel Harbon, said members not only gained a foundation of Talmudic knowledge, but also a deeper spiritual connection.
“[Gabbai] volunteered his time for us to have more knowledge about what the upcoming readings are in the synagogue … which is pretty cool,” Harbon said. “It’s nice to have a rabbi that’s involved with his community, for us to grow stronger into Judaism.”
The women’s group doesn’t just benefit women congregants, though, Gabbai said. It’s a way of increasing engagement for the whole community.
“Unfortunately, many people go to High Holiday services … And they are passive attendants in the service. They are not active participants,” Gabbai said.
By educating congregants who haven’t had the same opportunities as men to learn Jewish texts, Gabbai hopes to “break the cycle” of passivity in his shul.
Technology, such as Zoom has allowed spiritual engagement in new ways.
According to Rabbanit Dasi Fruchter of the South Philadelphia Shtiebel, aesthetics in synagogue matter. When Zoom was introduced, aesthetics of the synagogue — the arrangement of seating, the position of a bimah — were disrupted. While this was an adjustment, it allowed changes to ritual and programming, including new opportunities for women, to be less surprising to congregations.
“It’s so different in the first place, that it doesn’t feel as aesthetically shocking,” Fruchter said.
In addition to a women’s reading over Zoom this year, Gabbai will work with the women’s groups to organize readings during Rosh Hashanah, which will be in person. Gabbai envisions women being able to sing Rosh Hashanah prayers on their side of the mechitza.
These growing opportunities are not just present at Mikveh Israel, and are not necessarily new to all Orthodox spaces in the community.
At Lechu Neranena Partnership Minyan in Bala Cynwyd, an Orthodox shul, women are permitted to “lead Kabbalat Shabbat, give Divrei torah, receive aliyot and read Torah for the community,” balancing “both halacha” — Jewish law — “and equality,” which has helped to forge stronger connection to Judaism for some of its women congregants.
“It’s an experience beyond ritual,” said Carolyn Hochstadter, a board member and past president. “There’s just something beautiful about leyning (reading from the Torah) and davening that really speaks to me.”
Beyond the Philadelphia area, in Israel, Rabbanit Shira Marili Mirvis became the first woman spiritual leader of an Orthodox synagogue in April, The Jerusalem Post reported.
However, every Orthodox synagogue’s path forward to incorporate women into ritual is different and must proceed at its own pace.
“It’s important to get creative and not assume that there’s only one way forward, both philosophically and also spiritually,” Fruchter said. “Creating prayer spaces, it’s a dance, to help it be a transformational place, a place where people feel valued, where their voices matter, where you really feel like you’re praying in community.”
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