On a recent Friday night, the library on the second floor of the Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania was overflowing with 120 men and women from more than 15 colleges and universities across the United States. They had come together to welcome in the Sabbath with the traditional Kabbalat Shabbat prayers. But there was something untraditional about this gathering: It was the first organized opportunity for students involved in the Partnership Minyan movement to meet one another, pray together, and discuss the values and ideologies that brought them to this point.
Affiliated with Orthodox Judaism, the Partnership Minyan movement is only about 10 years old. Born out of the desire to create prayer spaces that allow for the maximum participation of both men and women within the Orthodox Jewish legal framework, Partnership Minyan services permit women to participate in ways that are forbidden in traditional Orthodox communities, such as leading certain prayers and reading from the Torah. At Penn, our group, Shira Chadasha, is named for the first of these communities, founded in Jerusalem.
Because the movement is young, its future may be shaped by those currently running such communities on college campuses. As leaders of this prayer group at Penn, we organized the Intercollegiate Partnership Minyanim Shabbaton earlier this month, hoping to establish a network for these students to share resources, ideas and experiences.
It was soon apparent that despite our common emphasis on female participation in the prayer space, our communities vary quite a bit from campus to campus. In some, members of the Partnership Minyan are primarily from the Orthodox community while, in others, the communities include more students from liberal streams of Judaism.
At some schools, the Partnership Minyan creates an environment where students from different Jewish streams — or with no denominational affiliation at all — come together to pray.
At Penn, the Shira Chadasha community defines itself not only by its commitment to female participation, but also by a commitment to creating a spiritually uplifting prayer experience and to building an inclusive community.
One of our panels, on the “nuts and bolts” of running a Partnership Minyan and featuring community leaders from four different universities, shed light on the different challenges faced by these communities. Some groups struggle to attract enough males. Some have trouble finding women who have or would like to learn the skills needed to participate. Many of the communities expressed challenges in their relationships with other religious communities on campus, particularly with the Orthodox community.
College may be a temporary place to build community, and a four-year experience that encourages experimentation is, in many ways, antithetical to building a sustainable movement. But the college students leading Partnership Minyanim on American college campuses today have a vision that goes beyond the fleeting nature of the college experience.
That vision is to create a community that recognizes that traditional Jewish life and gender equality are not, in fact, in conflict with one another. By uniting our values when entering the prayer space rather than compromising them, we can, through Partnership Minyanim, create meaningful and empowering prayer and communal experiences.
Until this recent weekend gathering, Partnership Minyanim have been developing separately, serving the specific needs of their communities. We hope that the recent Shabbaton may be the start of a more concerted effort to unify the movement and look to the future. l
Tamar Friedman is a junior from Huntingdon Valley. Eliana Machefsky is a senior from St. Louis. They both are studying political science at Penn.