Atlanta, Georgia: Where a teenage girl is leading change for Orthodox women

Wed, 10/10/2012 - 10:59am -- JOFA

by JOFA Staff 

Eden FarberThe women of the Orthodox community of Atlanta, Georgia, are going to be celebrating Simchat Torah like they have never celebrated before – and it’s all thanks to the hard work and vision of a young woman who led the way. Fifteen-year-old Eden Farber wanted more opportunities for women’s ritual inclusion, and spent the past six months working with her rabbi and community in a series of events that will be culminating with the first ever women’s Torah reading on Simchat Torah at the Young Israel of Toco Hills. 

Eden, who studies frequently at the Drisha Institute and learns daf yomi, has been frustrated with women’s limited roles in synagogue, which she wrote in an article published in Fresh Ink for Teens last year:  (http://www.freshinkforteens.com/articles/through-looking-glass-mechitza)

What I don’t understand — it really does baffle me — is how we call ourselves Modern Orthodox. This patriarchal design we call a religious experience is not reflective of modern society; it’s as anachronistic as possible. The few allowances—the girls’ dvar Torah and the prayer for the State of Israel—take some of the sting out of the experience of invisibility, yet I still find myself perpetually irked. The caging restrictions are conducive to the small number girls present — why come when you mean nothing to the service?

Rather than rest on her laurels, Eden decided to speak to the women of her community about her concerns. With the help of her mother, Channie Farber, Eden sent out an email to some women in her community inviting them to her house to discuss the issue of women’s ritual inclusion in shul. Some fifteen women attended this meeting, and the energy, she recalls, was electric. “It was really amazing,” she said. “We discussed so many important issues – having more women scholars in residence, bringing the Torah to the women’s side during services, possibilities for women’s Shabbat mincha groups and kabbalat Shabbat. There is so much we can do, and it was very exciting.”

As a result of this meeting, the group decided to approach the rabbi, Rabbi Adam Starr, a young Yeshiva University-ordained rabbi whose oldest daughter is going to be celebrating her bat mitzvah this coming year. Rabbi Starr listened to the women’s ideas and was very encouraging and optimistic about the possibilities for gradually introducing changes into the community.

“I want women to be engaged in Jewish life and Jewish growth and to connect to the shul,” Rabbi Starr said. “I want women to feel like they have a place and that they can explore new avenues in terms of their Judaism – to make it their own.”

The first step, they decided, was to teach women how to layn. Over the summer, a woman from the synagogue who knows how to layn volunteered to teach the women. She gave a class for fifteen women – and the women are now ready to conduct their own service, for the first time in their shul’s history, onSimchat Torah.

“It’s very cool to see so many women be so inspired,” Eden said. “There were three generations of women who are all there sitting next to each other learning to layn. It’s amazing for me to see that the women really care.”

Channie agrees. “All the women in the class who are layning are on fire from it,” she said. “They are all feeling so empowered. There are women in the group who were feeling disaffected with Judaism who have become reconnected in a beautiful way. It has given them new life, a whole new excitement about Judaism. It’s huge.”

The women in the community have indeed been inspired by Eden’s work. “Eden has done an incredible thing for our shul,” says Rebbetzin Talya Gorsetman. “The women here are very supportive. I am very proud of Eden, proud of our community, proud of my husband.” 

Rabbi Starr is also pleased with how this is turning out. “The model I wanted to create here was a model of Talmud Torah, of connecting women through the lens of learning,” he said. “I want to get women to learn how to layn and engage with the text itself.” For that reason, the women’s Torah reading will be punctuated by women’s divrei Torah. “I didn’t want the message to be imitating men but about engaging more deeply with Torah,” he added.

“I see the faces of these women are just excited, inspired, and feel that they have an avenue to grow religiously,” Rabbi Starr said. “On Rosh Hashana, I spoke about searching for God, and one of the women in this group said that learning to layn was her way to search for God – and for me that was very inspiring.”

For Eden, this is just the beginning. “There’s so much more to do if we can just try,” she says. “Sometimes in my school I would feel like I’m the only one who cares about this, but now I know I’m not, because I have all these women who have come out to learn and to participate.”

“The class also really helped me perfect the trop,” said Channie, adding that she homeschooled Eden for many years, and over the course of five years they learned the entire Chumash together using some of the trop.  “I hadn't felt like I knew it enough to layn publicly, and this class took it up a level. Edenlayned at her bat mitzvah, but for me this was an opportunity to improve and layn in public.”

The class has also become a significant part of an already close mother-daughter relationship. “We sit on the couch together sometimes, me with mygemara and she with the tikkun, and that’s so nice for me,” Eden says.  Channie, is turn, is inspired by her daughter. “She has more guts than some 35-year-olds I know,” she says. “The things she does, the way she puts herself out there in ways that I could never have done myself at her age – make me really proud of her.”

It seems, then, that change for the benefit of women’s ritual inclusion can be simple and straightforward. It can start with one email, one small group, one little room behind the shul, one fifteen-year-old girl who truly cares. The message is clear: small things can sometimes make a big difference.  

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