By Chavie Kahn
The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, New York held its first Women’s Tefillah Group on August 18, 2012 in celebration of my daughter Sarina Kofman’s Bat Mitzvah. In short, a part of my Jewish dream for my daughter came true.
My daughter had the opportunity to leyn for the first time in her life, as did I. As it was both Rosh Chodesh Elul and Shabbat, Sarina chanted Hallel andleyned the first aliyah of Parashat Re’eh, the maftir aliyah for Rosh Chodesh and the haftarah for Rosh Chodesh. The remainder of the aliyot were chanted by close female family members and friends.
One of the most rewarding aspects of the service was that three women in addition to myself had the opportunity to leyn Torah for the first time! On that Shabbat morning, there was a torrential downpour. Nevertheless, our women friends appeared at 9am in the Kaylie Center (the social hall of The Hampton Synagogue)—in their flip flops--to celebrate with us at the Women’s Tefillah Group.
The Kaylie Center was decked out with beautiful flowers and an artistic mechitzah, behind which nine men sat, including my husband Heshy, my two sons and my father-in-law. Heshy rotated our male family members and close friends in and out of the Tefillah Group to ensure that there would be only nine men at all times. We were under a strict timeframe as we had agreed with Rabbi Marc Schneier that we would return to the main service for the sermon andmusaf. Rabbi Schneier was very supportive of our Women’s Tefillah Group and reassured us that any logistical challenges could be addressed.
For most of the women attending the Women’s Tefillah Group, it was their first experience at such a service. I received numerous compliments that the service was both spiritual and meaningful. For many women, this was their first exposure to women taking on active ritual roles in the synagogue. As a community, we built on this momentum and created a women’s learning session during this past Simchat Torah.
I truly felt that seeing my daughter leyn was a singular moment in my life and in Sarina’s religious development. I felt immense joy in seeing three generations of my family up at the bimah at the same time—my German-Israeli mother recited the brachot (blessings) before and after her aliyah, while Ileyned, and my daughter also stood at the bimah since she had just finished leyning.
Three generations of women: Savta Ada Kahn, Sarina Kofman, Chavie Kahn (r to l)
I was very emotional from the start of the process of my daughter learning how to leyn, and her learning for her Bat Mitzvah. We wanted a teacher who not only could teach Sarina and me how to leyn, but who could also serve as a role model for our daughter. The bond that grows between a soon-to-be Bat Mitzvah and her leyning teacher is a strong one, and we were thrilled with our decision to hire Ms. Deborah Anstandig, a Tanach (Bible) teacher at SAR High School. We also asked Elana Stein Hain, the dynamic Community Scholar from Lincoln Square Synagogue, to work with Sarina to choose a topic fromParashat Re’eh to learn in depth.
I certainly had no idea at the outset how many logistical details were to be involved in implementing the Women’s Tefillah Group. The phrase “it takes a village” is right on point. We asked Elana Stein Hain to take the lead in all the various aspects of conducting the service. Elana consulted with Rabbi Saul Berman, who had formulated the rules and framework of Lincoln Square Synagogue’s Women’s Tefillah Group, the oldest functioning women’s tefillah group in the USA. Elana also coordinated with the three women who we asked to serve as gabbaiot.
Since it was Rosh Chodesh, we wanted to obtain two Torahs from which to leyn the two different Torah portions—the regular portion for Shabbat and themaftir for Rosh Chodesh. It was quite challenging to obtain two kosher Torahs and we rejected the idea of using a pasul (unkosher) Torah as one of the two Torahs. We similarly did not feel comfortable with rolling a single kosher Torah for both portions. Ultimately, we were able to obtain two kosher Torahs--one was from The Hampton Synagogue and the other one was a Torah which our family had restored for Lincoln Square Synagogue We also rented an Ark, as well as siddurim (prayer books) and chumashim (Bibles) from Kulanu Center for Special Services in Cedarhurst.
It was a thrill for me to ask our women family members and friends to participate or to receive a kibbud (honor) in the Women’s Tefilllah Group. There were many kibbudim (honors) to distribute, including leyning assignments, various aliyot, two hagbahs, two gelilahs and the honor of carrying the two Torahs to and from the Ark. This enabled many of our female family and friends to actively participate and closely connect with the service. After the service, Sarina’s grandfather, an Auschwitz survivor, stood in the men’s section and blessed her with the Misheberach Prayer for the Bat Mitzvah. I noticed that there were very few dry eyes as the legacy of Torah and mitzvot was transmitted from one generation to the next.
“Sarina with grandparents.” Helene Kofman, Sarina Kofman, Israel Kofman (r to l)
And then in a moment that I had thought of but did not rehearse, I stood in front of all the assembled and spoke from my heart. I explained how much this Women’s Tefillah Group in honor of Sarina’s Bat Mitzvah meant to me on a spiritual and religious level.
My daughter’s Bat Mitzvah celebration was in stark contrast to the celebration of my Bat Mitzvah. I was raised in a traditional Orthodox setting in Chicago where women’s tefillah groups and women actively participating in a tefillah service were not on the agenda. None of my female peers in my community learned how to leyn for their Bat Mitzvah. In fact, I was the first Bat Mitzvah who gave a devar torah from the men’s section in my shul, and that was considered progressive. The only experience I had of women leyning were my cousins leyning for their Bat Mitzvahs at the Plum Street Temple, a Reform synagogue in Cincinnati, Ohio.
For several years, I have attended the Women’s Tefillah Group at Lincoln Square Synagogue on the Upper West Side of New York City. By simply attending the Lincoln Square Women’s Tefillah Group I felt empowered—I was a part of a women only service where women both davened and leyned. One Simchat Torah I was given an aliyah, and I recall how nervous I was (even though my mother is Israeli, and I am fluent in Hebrew!) standing by a real Torah, yad[pointer] in my hand (what was I supposed to do with that yad?!) and feeling way out of my comfort zone. But in receiving that aliyah on that Simchat Torah several years ago—a feeling of connection with spirituality and Torah was triggered that I had not felt before.
The Lincoln Square Women’s Tefillah Group holds an annual Women’s Purim Megillah Service for women where the megillah is read by women. Four years ago, I decided to learn how to leyn a perek (chapter) of the megillah—I had no idea of the time and energy involved in such an endeavor. Having no background whatsoever in the ta’amei hamikra (cantillation), I felt as if I was learning a new language. I reached out to Chazzan Sherwood Goffin at Lincoln Square Synagogue and he prepared a tape (remember those?) of perek daled (chapter four) of the megillah. I sat in front of our antiquated boom box and listened to the tape over and over until I learned the ta’amei ha’mikra. Then I was ready to learn the actual perek – which had two different troptunes in it—the first section of the perek was to be chanted in the trop of Tisha Be’av while the remainder was to be chanted in Megillat Esther trop. On that Purim, when I rose to leyn, nervous though I was, I steadied myself and looked towards my three children—my eight year old twins (Sarina and Julian) and my ten year old son (Simon)--and I was keenly aware of modeling women’s participation for all of my children. I understood how critical it was to show my children that women too can have a voice in Judaism in this way.
I trust that the Women’s Tefillah Group experience for my own daughter is one that will function as a religious bellwether as she continues to spiritually develop in the years to come. My hope for all those girls who are becoming Bat Mitzvah is that they have the option to experience this milestone in a religiously meaningful way, as well as the resources and access to develop the skills to do so.
Chavie Kahn is an attorney in New York City. She is a member of the Board of Directors of Manhattan Day School, American Friends of NISHMAT and of AMIT’s New Generation Board of Directors. She is also an active member of The Hampton Synagogue and Lincoln Square Synagogue. Most importantly, Chavie is the proud mother of Simon Kofman (freshman at SAR High School) and Sarina and Julian Kofman (7th graders at Manhattan Day School).