Getting It Right: A Model Successfully Engaging Young Girls in Prayer

megillahBy Sharon Weiss-Greenberg

Hollywood, Florida; Memphis, Tennessee; Adwa, Ethiopia … seemingly m’Hodu ad Kush, women read the story of Esther for Purim 2015. JOFA’s Project Esther includes a number of initiatives to empower women to leyn the megillah. Resources include an interactive app for Tablets and Smart Phones to learn the leyning, articles and a webinar on the halakhot involved with women leyning megillah, a handout with suggested verses to be recited aloud by the congregation about Esther’s role, and an online map to locate readings where women can hear other women lain Megillat Esther. It is quite powerful to see over 90 locations listed literally all over the world.

Those engaged in leyning span from young women who recently were bat mitzvahed to women in their golden years. The excitement of those planning, attending, all eagerly anticipating this holiday was palpable in JOFA’s office. Months before Purim, people were checking in to make sure that they were on our map, had all of the resources available, and were asking for advice on how to ensure that their readings were executed in a meaningful, spiritual, and fun way. It is Purim after all!

JOFA is proud that we are able to help so many communities prepare for Purim, provide a platform for their publicizing public readings, and we are grateful that so many are able to be truly engaged and find meaning in a holiday that has not been as engaging or meaningful in the same manner for many women for centuries.

There are over 15 listings, Jewish day schools, which are not listed on JOFA’s map. For a variety of reasons, school readings are absent from the map. This number is impressive, especially considering that many Jewish schools are closed on Purim. There are a number of institutions where students, parents, teachers, and administrators have shared that this is a highlight of the year for their female students and faculty. I’ve seen a number of people’s eyes widen and smile as they share personal moments of engagement with the mitzvah, from learning how to leyn, studying the text, and being able to fulfill the mitzvah of reading megillah on Purim night or day. The joy and quality of their experiences could not be more apparent by their excitement and passion in their sharing their personal stories about the readings.

I wonder then, why more schools are not empowering women ritually throughout the year. Why limit engaging with the ritual of laining to Purim which only happens once a year? Why not allow women to lain from the Torah? After sending out a variety of emails to listservs, fellow Orthodox feminists and educators at large, in addition to Facebook crowdsourcing, there is only one Orthodox middle school where girls can begin leyning from the Torah in middle school. There are a handful of Community Day Schools where middle school aged female students can leyn from a Torah in an Orthodox service. There are three high schools in the United States where young women can lain Torah, but waiting until high school is not capitalizing on our daughters’ entry into the covenant with their Bat Mitzvah. Instead of asking why more Orthodox middle schools are not providing all of their students with options to engage in prayer services, certainly in locations where the students are familiar with this practice in their hometown communities on shabbat, I would rather highlight Ramaz, a coed Modern Orthodox day school in Manhattan, as a model for other schools to strongly consider.

I had the opportunity to speak to Ms. Lois Nyren, Assistant Head of the Ramaz Middle School. She explained that the 7th and 8th grade students have a women’s tefillah which began in 2000 when the middle school was formed. In response to the parents’ positive response to the practice, the group now meets twice a month, once on a day when Torah is read, and the other on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Friday. According to Nyren, in 2000 parents had shared that, “our daughters are learning and studying and gaining so much from this experience … Can we do this more regularly?” No matter if there is leyning, the girls are empowered to determine how tefillah will operate that day. They think creatively about ways to make the tefillah experience especially meaningful. On some days that may include a short tv clip, an exercise, a special tune, etc.

The community, including Ramaz and KJ, a local synagogue with strong ties to Ramaz, have embraced the implementation of a women’s tefillah where girls are fully engaged and invested in the service. Some students have chosen to have their bat mitzvah reading take place in this tefillah group because of its character, quality, and the community that it has built amongst the students. Recently, the school began inviting mothers to join whether or not a bat mitzvah is taking place. “It is a great opportunity for mothers to see daughters taking ownership … girls taking charge of their own tefillah,” says Nyren.

When educators are scratching their heads about how to engage students in liturgy and prayer services, they may want to consider visiting Ramaz. This model is such that students are trusted and empowered with what they consider a major kavod, not a bore.

Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, PhD, is Executive Director of Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.