This year on Purim, 18-year-old Mallika Viswanath will reprise the role she has been playing for the past six years. She is not dressing up as Queen Esther, but reading a chapter of Esther’s Scroll – M’gillat Esther.
“I read the m’gillah for my bat mitzvah six years ago at the Teaneck Women’s Tefillah [TWT],” the Frisch School senior relates. “My sister had her bat mitzvah there, so it was a natural part of my coming of age.”
This January marked the 30th anniversary of TWT, the ground-breaking area women’s prayer group, which was founded by a task force of about 25 local Orthodox women seeking to re-examine the role of Jewish women in modern society.
“The task force explored options for celebrating bat mitzvah, and those sessions led directly to the start of the Women’s Tefillah,” says founding member Judy Landau. “They turned to our daughter Rivka, who was 11, and asked, ‘How would you design your bat mitzvah?’ And she said, ‘I would want to lead davening [prayers] and leyn [read the Torah portion].'” Such activities are common at regular services in most non-Orthodox congregations in northern New Jersey, but are unheard of in Orthodox congregations.
By then, a women’s M’gillat Esther reading had been active for four years, and the women liked the idea of branching out. Agreeing to meet in private homes once a month on Shabbat mornings and sometimes Friday nights, they bought siddurim (prayer books) and chumashim (Five Books of Moses). Someone donated a portable Torah ark. “A few families have their own Torah [scrolls that] they lend us,” says Landau.
Abiding by Orthodox tradition, TWT members skip parts of the service requiring a quorum of men, a minyan. If any men are present, as they sometimes are at b’not mitzvah commemorations, they are separated from the women by a m’chitzah (barrier) as in any traditional Orthodox synagogues and prayer groups.
Cindy Balsam had the first TWT Shabbat bat mitzvah. Rivka Landau’s was held on Labor Day 1982 at Teaneck’s VFW Hall. “The local men were not invited,” recalls her mother. “The women were invited to the service and men to a brunch afterward.”
However, they put up a m’chitzah for male family members, and one of the Landaus’ male friends also “sneaked in,” Judy Landau recalls.
“His was a very interesting reaction: He said that he did not like sitting behind the m’chitzah. It was like he walked a mile in my moccasins. He thought he understood until he was behind the m’chitzah, separate from the action.”
The men who attended had prayed beforehand, since they could not participate with the women, as per instructions from Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR). The synagogue hosted one of the country’s first women’s t’filah groups, still meeting monthly since 1979, and Weiss served as TWT’s startup adviser.
“I think ours was the first women’s t’filah [group] to take place in a shul,” comments Rabba Sara Hurwitz, part of the HIR rabbinical team. “It provides an intimate sense of community and forces people to participate – and if they don’t know how, to learn and to begin flexing those new skills. It’s a wonderful opportunity for bat mitzvah girls. Over the past nine years that I’ve been involved, I have seen an increase in girls choosing to leyn the entire parashah [portion] for their bat mitzvahs.”
TWT has hosted at least 35 bat mitzvahs over the years, says Landau, but recently participation has waned. The group meets only for occasional b’not mitzvah and on Simchat Torah, Purim, and Tishah B’Av night, during which the Scroll of Lamentations is publicly read. It also sponsors a Shavuot afternoon study session.
Several possible reasons are cited for the downswing: the rightward shift of the Orthodox community; the alternative of “partnership” Orthodox services, where women participate in specific aspects along with men; and the availability of women’s Purim and Simchat Torah services elsewhere in Teaneck. Walking distance is a critical factor for the Orthodox and those Conservative Jews who do not drive on Shabbat.
Driving on Purim is permissible, so many TWT participants attend a Purim evening m’gillah reading on one side of town and a morning reading across town at the Jewish Center of Teaneck (JCT), says coordinator Deborah Wenger. She got involved with TWT about 25 years ago. Having learned to chant the Torah by listening to her brother practice for his bar mitzvah commemoration, she even taught her son for the marking of his bar mitzvah in 1996.
She leyns parts of both the Purim and Tisha B’Av m’gillot at JCT, which is close to her home. “I can’t remember the last time I heard a man read the m’gillah,” says Wenger. She also coordinates the center’s Simchat Torah readings, started at her suggestion two and a half years ago when Rabbi Lawrence Zierler was seeking to increase women’s participation.
“It has gone over really well,” Wenger says. “We had about 30 women at our second gathering this year, and about 24 women took an aliyah to the Torah, some of them for the first time. We had everything printed out and transliterated. One woman just burst into tears when she came up there.”
A women’s Simchat Torah reading is also offered at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck. Past shul president Pamela Scheininger says about 90 percent of the congregation’s women sometimes take a second scroll to read in a separate room during the Shabbat Torah reading. “It used to be every six to eight weeks, but now it’s more around bat mitzvahs,” she says.
“There’s a finite number of areas in which women can engage ritually and connect in voice and action with what’s going on in shul, and this is one of them,” Scheininger reflects. “Touching the Sefer Torah and learning the mechanics of leyning is a meaningful way to participate.”
Judy Landau agrees. “Spiritually, it’s much more fulfilling to be part of a service rather than to be a spectator. At the beginning, women said, ‘I can’t do this; I don’t know how,’ and I said, ‘We’ve been sitting in the stands and we’ve never swung a bat.’ It’s a different experience to be involved in an active rather than passive way.”
The big question is whether TWT can attract a younger leadership to take it into the next 30 years.
“A few of the bat mitzvah girls stayed in the community and stayed interested in participating, but not organizationally,” says Landau. “People moving in don’t know we exist, and the younger women are interested in other outlets for their Jewish interests.”
Come Purim, however (from sundown March 7 through sundown March 8), women can participate in women’s m’gillah readings at TWT in the evening (e-mail Judy Landau at JudyLsc@aol.com for address and time), at the Jewish Center of Teaneck at 10 a.m. in the Weiss Auditorium; or at Cong. Netivot Shalom at 9 a.m. (to volunteer, contact Tammy Jacobowitz at firstname.lastname@example.org).