On Simchat Torah, which celebrates the completion of the reading of the Torah, everybody in shul is supposed to get an aliyah. In non-egalitarian Orthodox synagogues, however, women often watch from the sidelines as the men dance with the Torah and get called up for aliyot.
Not this year at The Jewish Center of Teaneck.
The center will hold its first Simchat Torah women’s Torah reading on Oct. 1, led by congregant Deborah Wenger.
“For anyone who’s never done this, it’s such a meaningful thing to actually be able to see what a Torah looks like, to say the brachot over the Torah, to participate in the mitzvah,” Wenger said.
She noted that the women will not say the traditional blessing before the Torah readings and the service is not a minyan. It is, she said, completely in line with halacha.
Wenger led a women’s Megillah reading during Purim, another first at the center. The center’s board declared the center officially Orthodox earlier this year. It had never affiliated in its almost 80-year history and it held traditional services that, although they included mixed seating, were non-egalitarian. When Wenger, a 27-year veteran of the Teaneck Women’s Tefillah group on the other side of town, approached the board about creating the women’s service, Rabbi Lawrence Zierler saw it as an opportunity to involve a wider cohort.
“On Simchat Torah women should not have to idle while men have aliyot,” Zierler said. “It is an experience in Torah study with an actual sefer Torah. There’s halachic precedence for women dancing with sefrei Torah on Simchat Torah.”
Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, president of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, which includes most of the area’s Orthodox rabbis, said he was unaware of any women’s Torah groups in RCBC rabbis’ synagogues.
“With women being better educated [than in the past], we need to find an expanded role for them within a halachic context,” Zierler said. “This is very different than an egalitarian approach. It’s not the same as your garden variety aliyah to the Torah but it is a meaningful way for women to study with trope.”
“It’s the Torah of all Jews,” Zierler added.
Nearby Netivot Shalom, which identifies as modern Orthodox, has had a women’s Simchat Torah reading for at least five years.
“It’s wonderful to try to optimize women’s participation within a halachic framework,” said Pamela Scheininger, Netivot Shalom’s president. “I think that’s a great thing to strive for.”
|Deborah Wenger will lead a women’s Torah reading on Simchat Torah at the Jewish Center of Teaneck.|
The women’s reading will attract people from outside the shul as well, she said, noting that congregants have come to expect the readings.
“It’s become how we celebrate Simchat Torah and how we celebrate Purim with a women’s Megillah reading,” Scheininger said.
Judy Landau, special projects coordinator at the Union for Traditional Judaism, is one of the organizers of the Teaneck Women’s Tefillah, which started 28 years ago. For more than 25 years the group has met in private homes for hakafot and Torah reading on Simchat Torah. The service typically draws 60 to 70 women.
“We usually have at least two Torah scrolls to read from and anyone who wants an aliyah gets one,” she said, noting that like at the other services they do not do anything that requires a minyan.
Landau was thrilled that Wenger is bringing the experience to the Jewish Center.
“It’s wonderful that there’s something on this side of town,” she said. “There are people who’d love to participate who can’t walk over to the west side of Teaneck. I know Deborah Wenger will do a great job.”
For more information on the Jewish Center’s women’s Simchat Torah reading, call (201) 833-0515. For more about the Teaneck Women’s Tefillah, call (201) 833-9347. For more about Netivot Shalom, call (201) 801-0707.