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Orthodox Schools in New York Allow Girls to Pray With Tefillin

January 21, 2014 By:
JTA
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A set of tefillin in the Ashkanazi tradition. Photo from Wikimedia.

The Ramaz School in Manhattan became the second Modern Orthodox high school in New York to announce it will permit girls to wear tefillin during prayer.

The school said it will allow girls to wear tefillin during coed worship, going one step further than SAR High School, which drew a flurry of media coverage earlier this week for allowing girls to use the phylacteries during women’s prayer services.

Ramaz, one of the oldest and most prestigious Modern Orthodox day schools in the United States, sent its parents, students and board members an email on Jan. 21 announcing that it “would be happy to allow any female student who wants to observe the mitzvah of tefillin to do so.”

The email, from head of school Paul Shaviv, noted, “Women should be taught that they do not need to wear tefillin in order to lead Jewishly-religiously meaningful lives, at least equal to men. But they have the right to make their own decisions.”

Shaviv said “a small number of girls” have donned tefillin at the school’s prayer services in past years “without anyone making a fuss,” although none have asked to do so in the past three years.

Shaviv said the school decided for the first time to “formalize” its policy and “clarify our position” because journalists were calling to inquire about it.

“The parental response has been completely positive,” he said.

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, longtime principal of the Upper East Side school and spiritual leader of Kehilath Jeshurun, said that no female student has requested to wear tefillin recently, but that if one did “we would honor that request.”

“We’re not encouraging this; we’re accommodating this,” he added.

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.

The story became news last month when Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, principal of the SAR High School in Riverdale, N.Y., 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 e-mail 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 did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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, Judy Heicklen said. She is the president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and a parent at SAR. 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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