Why I Don’t Go to Shul on Simchat Torah


— by Hannah Lee

For the first time since Before Children, I attended an evening service for Simchat Torah. This was the inaugural Simchat Torah service for our partnership minyan, Lechu Neranena, and we had a terrific turnout. It was held in our new home, a township building that was the first home of the Bala Cynwyd Library. We danced with four sifrei Torah, from two schools and one family. The remarkable aspect of the attendance– other than the 100 or so in number– was the participation of young married women wearing tichels (wrapped headscarves), a group that had never attended the partnership minyan or our women’s tefillah group. (I, myself, wear a hat every day, but some observant women only cover their head for services.) A partnership minyan conducts services according to Orthodox tradition, but where women may give divrei Torah, lead Kabbalat Shabbat, and read from the Torah.

More after the jump.
My introduction to Judaism was in the pioneering communities of the Upper West Side of Manhattan and Flatbush, Brooklyn in the early 80’s, where women’s tefillah groups allowed traditional women access to the Torah. I was in the audience for the first international conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA). When my family moved to Lower Merion in 1990, I joined the fledgling Women’s Tefillah Group of the Main Line and when one of the founders moved to Teaneck, I took over as coordinator.

Over the years, I’ve done just about everything that needed to be done: collected dues, labeled and stuffed envelopes, schlepped chairs, and plated munchies. I’ve even leined (chanted) Torah when we lived in Brooklyn, but my voice is not as lovely as those of my husband and girls, so I’ve retired myself.

This Sukkot was the first time I felt really uplifted, when Jews parade with lulav and etrog during the Hoshanot portion of the morning service.  Years ago, I too had my own lulav and etrog in shul, but I was so klutzy holding them while juggling the machzor (holiday prayer book), that I resigned myself to bentching (saying the blessing) in our own sukkah before leaving for shul. I’ve also tried walking with my husband during Hoshanot while the parade was outside of the Sanctuary, but that was deemed not advisable. This year I felt totally fine with not joining in parade.

Simchat Torah was still different. How could I rejoice when I and other women are not allowed to dance with the Torah? So, I stayed away from shul. My refuge was the women’s tefillah gatherings where we davened according to the laws about praying without a minyan, had hakafot with two sifrei Torah, and listened to women chanting from the Torah portion. I was mostly content, but it was hard to be separated from my family and it necessitated juggling logistics and childcare. This Simchat Torah was different and it was lovely. Men, women, and children were all together and we danced with our separate sifrei Torah. This felt right and it was uplifting indeed.

On Monday evening, October 15, Rabbi Daniel Sperber of Bar Ilan University will speak at the University of Pennsylvania campus, Steinhardt Hall, on “New Halachic Frontiers: An Analysis of the Shira Chadasha Movement.” In 1992, Rabbi Sperber was the recipient of the Israel Prize, Israel’s highest honor, for Jewish studies.  He is the halachic advisor for several partnership minyanim, including Shira Chadasha in Jerusalem and Darchei Noam in New York.