By Leah Slaten
Leyning (chanting Torah) permanently shifted my relationship with Judaism. When I learned to leyn last year, I felt more connected to Tanakh (Bible), and to my Jewish heritage, than I ever had previously, knowing that for the first time I was participating fully in a ritual that had been passed down for millennia. I never considered myself especially feminist, so before my friend Ricki offered to teach me how to leyn, I never would have thought about leyning as a possibility for me. I was never particularly bothered by or attuned to my status in the Jewish community as a woman, and as such leyning was pretty much grouped under the sizeable umbrella of "feminist things that make me uncomfortable/do not interest me." When I began to leyn though, I saw it was something completely different than anything I expected. It was not me trying to make a statement ("Hey everyone, I'm leyning because I can, even though I'm a woman"), it was me searching for connections in the words of Tanakh and tradition. As such, leyning became something for which I was willing to advocate. Almost immediately, I decided that I would do anything to spread leyning to more people like myself.
I recently began an organization to achieve this goal.
The Leyning Partnership’s mission, most broadly, is to make leyning more accessible to people of both genders and all backgrounds. It is an online-based program that provides information about online resources, including recordings of trop (cantillation) and Torah readings, pairs up students with tutors who provide free access to high quality leyning education, and engages in open discussion about the role of Torah reading in public prayer and about the role of women in Torah reading. Our goal is to enable the widest possible range of people to learn to leyn in a way that is the most convenient for them.
Current impediments to leyning include financial, halachic, and geographical constraints. The Leyning Partnership seeks to overcome all these boundaries. When leyning lessons cost exorbitant prices, it is difficult to afford such a luxury, especially if you are not actively preparing for your Bar or Bat Mitzvah. The Leyning Partnership counteracts this by providing free, volunteer-based tutoring to interested students, so that cost does not have to be a deterrent. As I articulated earlier, many people have halachic concerns regarding women leyning. By explaining sources in a non-biased way, the Leyning Partnership seeks to address these concerns. Finally, some students are constrained from learning how to leyn because of geographic disabilities: they live too far from the mainstream Jewish world to find anyone to teach them how to leyn. The Leyning Partnership provides lessons via Google Hangout, as well as resources to enable self-study, in order to eliminate this problem.
Through studying leyning together, a 'partnership' is forged between the student and tutor, enabling each to grow from the other. In the span of just a few months, my role shifted from student to teacher and I experienced the equal potential for growth offered by each role. Learning from Ricki, I was in awe of the intricacies in the crowns on the letters, the complexities of the interplay of the vowels and te'amim (cantillation) on words, and the overall experience of joining in this tradition. I dove deeper and deeper into leyning as a way to deepen my personal connection to Judaism. Now, teaching my friend Devorah, I am often impressed and inspired to watch her growth, and to know that I am in part responsible for catalyzing it. She told me, for instance, that she began to listen to her brother practice for his Bar Mitzvah, trying to follow along with the te'amim that he was using. She recounted her growing frustration that it was expected of her twelve year old brother to learn to leyn, while a similar decision on her part was deemed strange, at the very least, by the majority of her family and community. While I of course do not aim to make her dissatisfied with situations that did not bother her previously, it is a beautiful thing to witness her developing enthusiasm for leyning.
You can find out more about the Leyning Partnership by visiting our website, www.leyningpartnership.org, or our Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Leyning-Partnership/164735643684157. Learning to leyn shifted my relationship to Tanakh, and to Judaism in general, forever. Maybe yours will shift too.
Leah Slaten is a senior at SAR High School. Next year she will be at Midreshet Ein Hanatziv in Israel.