Women teach women on Simchat Torah
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Women teach women on Simchat Torah

The Orthodox Union’s Women’s Initiative encourages engagement through Torah

Rebbitzin Dr. Adina Shmidman is the founding director of the OU’s Women’s Initiative.
Rebbitzin Dr. Adina Shmidman is the founding director of the OU’s Women’s Initiative.

Start with the two premises that are basic to the Orthodox Union’s understanding of Judaism:

Simchat Torah is the celebration of the end of one cycle of Torah reading and the start of the next one; we “turn it and turn it again, for all is in it; see through it; grow old and worn in it; do not budge from it, for there is nothing that works better than it,” as the Talmud quotes Ben Bag-Bag as saying.

Women and men are inherently different, and therefore they celebrate Simchat Torah differently.

There’s also a third, more recent understanding — that women should be encouraged to exalt in Torah, even as men do, although they must do it entirely differently.

This year, for the second time, the OU’s Women’s Initiative is spearheading a program that encourages synagogues to offer a class to women, taught by a local rebbetzin or scholar who is a member of the shul and knows the community, that will run at the same time that each of the men in the community is getting his Simchat Torah aliyah.

This year, 44 synagogues are offering the program, up from 32 last year. Four of them are in Bergen County. (None this year are in Rockland, but there’s always next year.)

“The goal of the program is to assure that on the day when we are celebrating the culmination of the Torah reading cycle, that women are engaged in it, and excited by it,” Rebbetzin Dr. Adina Shmidman, the Women’s Initiative’s founding director, said.

“Most of the talks will be text based; all of these women are speaking about what they feel is important for their particular group,” Dr. Shmidman said. “We are getting a colorful array of speakers.

“The idea is that when men receive their aliyot, the women also have an opportunity to engage with Torah.” Usually the women just watch as the men break into small groups, each clustered around one of the shul’s sifrei Torah. “Women usually are passive in that piece of the service,” Dr. Shmidman said. They will come back to the room for the last aliyah, but until then “they don’t have a particular role. This is an opportunity for them to feel very engaged and active.”

Dr. Shmidman’s husband, Rabbi Abraham Shmidman, heads the Lower Merion Synagogue in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. It’s a big shul, Dr. Shmidman said, and “several years back, we were really struggling with how to have an engaging opportunity for women in the synagogue, and someone, one of my rebbitzen colleagues, mentioned this to me.” It was a grassroots movement; several shuls across the country had been doing it. “It struck me as such a simple idea — and such a good one.”

So Lower Merion started offering a learning session for women on Simchat Torah morning. The shiur grew larger every year. So when Dr. Shmidman undertook the Women’s Initiative, she realized that this program easily could go national. “Even on the local level, it framed what I was doing in a different light,” she said. “We were part of a national program. The attendance for sure was up in our shul, and we were a fixed program on the calendar, with a fixed space. It was viewed as an established part of the morning, rather than as an add-on.”

It’s gotten great feedback, she said. “There is tremendous excitement in putting it into place. The attendance was far higher than they expected.”

Dr. Shmidman’s taught on Simchat Torah morning for years, but this year she decided it was time to give someone else a chance. She remembers the talks she’s given in other years; they’re all subjects she’s passionate about.

She’s talked about the Shema, and she’s talked about “Breaking the Korban Code: Making Sacrifices Meaningful.” She based that talk on a work by the 19th century intellectual Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. “He had a unique insight about the sacrificial animal sacrifices, which we read about that day as part of the service, but it has very little bearing on our lives. His insight is profound — that every animal has a characteristic, and that when we give a sacrifice we are acknowledging that part of ourselves in the process.

“The best example is that the sin offering always is a goat. If you think about it, the goat eats through the fence. The goat eats the plants. The goat eats the laundry. It is a very naughty animal, and it seems always to be getting into trouble. So giving a goat as a sin offering makes a lot of sense.”

So too does giving sheep, which are docile, and which are sacrificed singly, in pairs, or in groups of seven. Those numbers, too, are coded, and reflect the individual, the nation, and nature.

“It’s a code,” Dr. Shmidman said. “So most people, when they see the list of sacrifices, your brain zones out. It has no personal relevance.” But when you can decode the text you’re reading, it offers illumination and guidance, as is entirely appropriate for Simchat Torah.

She’s confident that each of the women who will teach will offer something appropriately unexpected, fascinating, and relevant to the lives of the other women sitting with her that day.

“We are very excited to be partnering with the local community,” she said. “We hope to grow the program, to continue to do more programming, and to be able to continue to reach and engage the women of our community.”

Dina Acoca will teach at the Sephardic Congregation of Fort Lee, which her husband, Rabbi Ilan Acoca, leads. It’s the first year she’s taught at her own shul on Simchat Torah morning, she said, although she has done it elsewhere in Fort Lee. “The women in our synagogue love learning,” she said, so she’s glad to work with the OU to provide it.

Rabbanit Acoca will teach about “the connection of Torah and women,” she said. “About how Torah inspires you to live your daily life.” The course is by a woman, for women; it will “take women as the baseline, the fact that you are a woman and how you as a woman can bring Torah into your life.”

Women and men are different, she said. “A woman is on a different level than a man. She is created differently, so obviously she has different ways of fulfilling her work in the world.

“Actualizing women’s potential is very important in today’s society, with so much equality of men and women,” she continued. “It is important to take a step back and understand, in my humble opinion, that Torah has a different channel for men and for women. Women are created on a much higher spiritual level than men. So many studies, so much information on psychology and Torah, has been done that proves this.

“So instead of trying to keep up with the men, and doing similar things, we need to internalize the Torah and realize that we have a different path to follow, and that we must elevate ourselves in that way.”

Rabbanit Acoca will start to teach at about 10:30, which is about when the aliyot will start, although “there is so much singing and dancing that it’s hard to know exactly when it will end,” she said.

Women sit in the balcony in her shul. “In our synagogue, the hafakot are quite the scene. Everyone” — that is, all the men — “are dancing, and there are so many children around, and the candy is flying everywhere, the chocolate is flying everywhere. It’s a wow scene.” The women overlook it all. “It’s a high balcony, and you have such a different perspective,” Rabbanit Acoca said. “The women are on a higher level spiritually, and you kind of look down on it.

“I never studied why Sephardic synagogues have women’s balconies, upstairs, but maybe that’s one of the reasons.”

Dr. Sara Markowitz is married to Rabbi Andrew Markowitz of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn, and she will teach there.

“We have done this teaching in the past,” Dr. Markowitz said. “It is so amazing, and so well received. It is really important for us to have the opportunity to express our excitement and appreciation for what we have had since Shavuot” — the late-spring festival the celebrates the giving of the Torah. By this time of year, “We have lived with it for a while,” she said. “We want to reflect on it.”

Like Dr. Shidman and Rabbanit Acoca, Dr. Markowitz feels that it is important for women to “have this unique opportunity to come together and learn.”

Her talk is called “Spiritual mapping, planning emunah, and the road ahead,” and it is shaped by her work as a psychologist. “I like to reflect on how Torah applies to our lives,” she said. “To us as people.

“I want to talk about the balance between planning and emunah” — faith. “It is important to plan, but you can look at so many instances in the Tanach when the plans don’t work. One very significant piece of having faith is the belief that this is all part of the process. This is what it is about — us growing as people, and in our connection to God through the process.”

The men sit in the center at Shomrei Torah, and the women’s sections are on the same level, to the right and left. The women leave for the men’s aliyot, as in the other shuls, and they come back as the men and children stand under a huge chuppah, “a very beautiful one, dedicated in memory of a young woman who passed away,” she said. It is a powerful time, when women can devote themselves to personal prayers, particularly if they are struggling with infertility.

“I find it to be a very meaningful experience,” Dr. Markowitz said. “It is beautiful. The OU does a great job at helping people to work in the roles that they think are right.

“It is very beautiful.”

The other two women who will speak in Bergen County on the morning of Simchat Torah are both in Teaneck — Miriam Krupka Berger at Congregation Shaare Tefillah and Rachel Frazer at Congregation Beth Aaron. Simchat Torah starts on the evening of Monday, October 21, this year, and ends on Tuesday, October 22. The women will teach on Tuesday morning.

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