On a recent Friday night, in a small room near the front of the Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania, the women are modestly dressed and separated from the men by a mechitzah. The Kabbalat Shabbat melodies are familiar and if you close your eyes, you might think you were at any Orthodox service, with lively and loud davening. With one major difference — a female student is leading the service.
The group, Shira Chadasha, is what is termed a “partnership minyan,” a relatively new phenomenon in which daveners follow traditional Orthodox liturgy and separate the sexes, but women are allowed not only to lead parts of the service but also deliver a d’var Torah and read from the Torah itself.
For women who come from an Orthodox background, who have never read Torah or taken on such roles, the experience can be enlightening.
“When they have come up and read Torah for the first time in our community, I think that’s one of the most beautiful and inspiring things because it’s a Jewish skill, it’s such an important part of the service, and it’s something that has not been accessible to women who grew up in an Orthodox background,” said Tamar Friedman, a coordinator of the Penn minyan.
But while participants are finding special meaning, leaders of Orthodox institutions condemn such minyans, which are growing in numbers on college campuses and in Jewish communities around the world. Most Orthodox rabbis say there is no halachic basis for allowing women to stand at the pulpit and lead and there is also a prohibition against men hearing women sing, a concept known as kol isha.
The partnership minyanim is one of a number of issues that have caused a stir in recent years as part of the debate over the role of women in Orthodox Judaism.
Leaders of three partnership minyanim that now meet once or twice a month in the Philadelphia area say they have not heard much, if any, criticism. Many of them also still belong to and worship at Orthodox synagogues.
At the Friday evening night services at Penn Hillel, the students, roughly equal numbers of men and women, wished each other “Good Shabbas,” before finding space on either side of the collapsible wooden mechitzah. A male student led the group through a typical Minchah, or afternoon, service before they started Kabbalat Shabbat.
“If you sit in that room on a Friday night with 100 people praying, closing their eyes and swaying back and forth, and you feel the energy, it’s just really what prayer is about,” said Friedman, a junior from Huntingdon Valley who grew up attending a Conservative synagogue. “I think a big part of having the participation of both men and women is that it takes the politics and gender out of the prayer space and allows people to really pray from their souls.”
Advocates of the partnership minyanim take issue with the opponents, contending that the more egalitarian approach fits comfortably within the bounds of Jewish law.
Martin Lockshin, an Orthodox rabbi who teaches at York University in Toronto, said that while he was initially skeptical of the concept, he is now convinced.
In the Talmud, it states “anybody can be called up to read the Torah, even a woman,” but that a woman should not be called “because of the honor or the dignity of the community.” However, he added: “It is generally understood that if a community chooses to forego or redefine its honor, than a community can do so.”
Forego the honor of the community?
Lockshin said he supports the notion of establishing new communities seeking to redefine practices, rather than pushing existing congregations to change, to forego their honor. He cites as an example the evolving acceptance of teenage boys leading services.
“In a previous generation, this was an affront to the dignity of the community. Now, in almost every modern Orthodox community, there are 15, 16, 17 year olds leading services. In the past there was an attitude that existed that women were considered to be inferior to men and as such, you don’t have someone from a lower social status lead.”
Lockshin now is a member and halachic adviser for a partnership minyan in Toronto, which started about six years after the first partnership minyan was established in Jerusalem in 2002.
“Everybody out there in the work force knows that this kind of hierarchal relationship, that men do things and women watch, is foreign to the spirit of the 20th and 21st century, and I think a lot of people find Orthodox synagogues off-putting for that reason,” said Lockshin, who spoke to Penn students and the Lechu Neranena partnership minyan in Bala Cynwyd last weekend. “I’m not in favor of saying egalitarianism trumps Jewish law, but when there is a fairly uncontroversial and uncomplicated way to accommodate more participation for women, I am all in favor of that.”
Rabbi Yonah Gross said he has heard little discussion about partnership minyanim at his modern Orthodox synagogue, Congregation Beth Hamedrosh in Wynnewood. But he made clear that he does not think the groups fit within the confines of “halachic and philosophical barriers” — such as the prohibition against men hearing women sing — that define “mainstream Orthodox thought.”
His objections square with those by national Orthodox associations.
The consensus of Orthodox rabbis “is unequivocal that partnership minyanim are improper,” according to a statement by the Orthodox Union, the umbrella organization of modern Orthodox congregations.
But the upstart, independent minyans fill an important need, said Saundra “Sunnie” Epstein, who founded the Shira Hadasha partnership minyan in Elkins Park two years ago. Epstein had attended Shabbat services at a minyan of the same name in Jerusalem more than a decade ago and said the experience reminded her of the Conservative services of the ‘60s and ‘70s — where halachah was observed, genders were separated, but women participated.
Epstein, who also belongs to Orthodox congregations Young Israel of Elkins Park and Mekor Habracha in Center City, said about 20 to 30 people, primarily from modern Orthodox or Conservative backgrounds, attend the services at her house. There is divided seating but no mechitzah, and women give divrei Torah and lead Kabbalat Shabbat services.
Men at partnership minyans lead other services such as afternoon Minchah and evening Ma’ariv, based on the precept that under Jewish law, men are obligated to recite the prayers, while women are not.
Epstein said she has not heard negative feedback from others in the Orthodox community, only questions.
“I don’t get the pushback because I don’t push. I know who would be interested and who would not be interested,” said Epstein, who does push in other realms as an advocate for Orthodox LGBT Jews.
Michael Gordan, a founder of the Lechu Neranena partnership minyan in Bala Cynwyd, agrees. “Most of the people who come to the minyan are from shomer Shabbat families who are interested in this and are willing participants,” he said. “The people who are opposed, I guess their feeling is they can do their thing, and we can do our thing.”
There are also differences in practices among partnership minyans. Some minyans have Torahs and lecterns on each side of the mechitzah for men and women to read from; others have one in the center that both approach. Some also require the presence of 10 men and 10 women to start services.
At the recent Penn service welcoming Shabbat, members removed the mechitzah before a d’var torah given by Shoshana Akabas, a senior from New York studying English and organic chemistry.
She said she learned about the differences among the partnership minyanim during a Shabbaton in January organized by Penn students and attended by 120 male and female students from more than 15 colleges.
She grew up attending a variety of services regularly, from Reform to Orthodox, and continues to frequent various affiliations at Hillel.
“The main reason I go to Shira Chadasha is the singing is so beautiful and the people are so invested in what they are doing,” Akabas said. “The details of the mechitzah and who is leading matter to me less personally."
Among the daveners, there were people who have attended the minyan since it started six years ago, continuing to come even after graduating.
But what happens when members move elsewhere after graduating?
“Once people leave the university,” said Friedman, the coordinator, “I think it would be difficult for a lot of people in our minyan not to seek out some features that our minyan has.”