Friday, April 4, 2014

This week's Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia -- Tackling Issues in the Modern Orthodox Realm

This week's issue of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia had an entire set of articles about Modern Orthodoxy and the various relevant issues that are at hand at this point in time in part of our ritualistically and religiously Halachic-driven community. One was about female students wearing tefilin at SAR, a second article about Partnership Minyanim (aside from a few errors in the article that will be apparent -- I stated that our Partnership Minyan was based on the model of Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem; and also indicated that the reason we do not have a physical Mechitzah is because of the absence of a Sefer Torah -- if we had Shabbat morning services there would be one), and the third on newer minted Orthodox Rabbis who do not necessarily agree with what is going on in these various changes and roles, but are advocating calmer and more respectful disagreements. I will take that and I certainly respect that!

Here are the links:

Clarification for this last article, though it is indicated as being available on line in January, it was included in this week's thematic inclusion of all of the above articles, with the outtake of "Pushing Boundaries"

I will tell you that this series of articles appearing as a unit was a long process. I had initially submitted an article regarding our Partnership Minyan this past August on what was actually our two year anniversary. The original article in its entirety appears below.

What I find so interesting about this is the shared understanding that SOMETHING is going on, and whether or not we agree with it, we should respect each other. Further, it is important to note that these are not brand new notions. As indicated in the article about SAR and girls wearing Tefillin, this goes back to Rashi's daughters hundreds of years ago. As for women reading Torah, the Gemara does in fact list all of those who can read Torah and does speak about giving preferential Kavod to those who are deserving, who by the way are the elder more learned members of the male participants in the congregation, with pleasant voices, if we want to be specific. The point is that we are all trying to pray, to live and to observe in the way that is most meaningful. What is wrong with that? What is not to be respectful about that? Halacha even tells us to be so on so many occasions!

I just thought you might be interested to see what is going on in this rather parochial region.


About thirteen years ago our eldest daughter was studying at MUSS High School in Hod HaSharon with her classmates from Akiba Hebrew Academy (now known as Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy). During our family Shabbat in Jerusalem that November, Yoella told us we just HAD to go to this new place called Shira Hadasha on Emek Refaim. “We would love it,” she insisted. And we did! It reminded me of all of the beauty and spirituality and religious presence I had felt growing up going to Shabbatonim in Seaboard USY (I come from one of the more religious and observant regions). It was reminiscent of the most beautiful Shabbatot we experienced as a family for many years at CAJE during its more than three decades of existence (different from NewCAJE but its parent, so to speak, nonetheless). Halacha was observed, minhagim (customs) that evolved into practices and standards studied intentionally and negotiated, and respect was shown towards all. The breath and breadth of the wonderful Jewish community was being truly celebrated, mechitza and all! This was precisely what I found at Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem and I have been going back ever since.

The idea of Partnership Minyanim is that Jewish law and practice are observed in terms of obligatory prayer elements while customs are revisited and reconsidered regarding the participation and leadership of women, taking a different approach to Kol Isha (hearing the voice of a woman) than much of our Orthodox community. This very discussion was presented in this newspaper last year in an article celebrating the one year anniversary of Lechu Neranena in Bala Cynwyd, a partnership minyan that meets monthly (Jewish Exponent, July 12, 2012).

This year, let us continue the celebration as we observe the second anniversary of both this group and its sister group on the other side of Montgomery County, Shira Hadasha of Elkins Park. This group meets monthly as well, in personal homes for dovening, a D’var Torah and dinner. It was founded and is coordinated by Dr. Saundra Sterling Epstein.

Once a month we meet to sing and enjoy the beautiful spiritual uplifting experience that Kabbalat Shabbat can and should be, using so many tunes and niggunim from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach z’l. In line with the scholarly work and position of Rabbi Mendel Shapiro and response of Rabbi Daniel Sperber as brought to the general community in 2001, we have men lead Mincha and Ma’ariv, in line with the idea of obligatory prayer (chiyuv). Women lead Kabbalat Shabbat, a customary series of beautiful psalms and praises to bring us into the mindset where we can welcome Shabbat into our hearts and homes. All sing together with voices raised, creating harmonies that serve to transition us from the work week to the sanctity of Shabbat. Women also give Divrei Torah, also a custom and thereby not subject to the same obligatory contours of other aspects of Jewish prayer practices.

In short, the preservation of “Devarim SheB’Kedusha” those aspects in which a minyan is needed is juxtaposed with observing that we can take some liberties with aspects of the service that are customary. This is actually the position that was the governing force in the Halachically rooted Conservative Judaism in which I was schooled as a young child. It was also familiar to the Orthodox world to which I was exposed and in which I lived and studied as a child decades ago in Baltimore, Maryland.

I fully realize that this is not accepted in much, albeit the majority of the Orthodox community. I can respect and accept that; I just hope that the understanding of differences in use and interpretation of law that leads to our practices can be extended from our right wing Orthodox world as well. That being said, with the growth of Partnership Minyanim, the traction that is being gained by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and its programs, Yeshivat Maharat, and the growing voice of Modern/Open Orthodoxy in our world today, we should allow ourselves to agree to disagree and welcome this wonderful option that gives a voice and presence to so many who find it meaningful and a place for their Jewish souls. We are on the map officially and may we all continue to find soulful ways of coming together to pray to G-d and accept that there are many ways to do so.

For more information about Shira Hadasha of Elkins Park, contact Dr. Saundra Sterling Epstein at

Shabbat Shalom to all! And may this truly be a Shabbat of peace, acceptance and understanding!

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