By Alexandra Benjamin
One year, shortly after I had returned home to my community following my university studies, I approached my rabbi. Simchat Torah was coming up and I wanted to see if we could find a way to make it just a little more inclusive for women. Our traditionally Orthodox synagogue was built in a balcony style and left women with no space to be anything other than observers. Since turning twelve years old, Simchat Torah had gone from being my favourite holiday to my least favourite; a sharp reminder of my second-class status. I didn’t ask for anything ‘radical’ like a sefer Torah (Torah scroll). I just suggested that we move hakafot to the adjacent social hall where we could put a mechitzah (partition) down the middle and allow the women to dance. The rabbi’s response was that it would disrespect the synagogue sanctuary to abandon it on the day we celebrated the Torah. That was the day I left my childhood community. A few years later, I moved to Israel and became an early member of Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem.
Simchat Torah is a huge event at Shira Hadasha. Every year, between 600-700 people join us for the celebration. Many come because they know it is the one place a woman can dance freely with the Torah; a place where a wife can receive an aliyah along with her husband. An event on this scale takes a huge amount of planning. Two years ago, I (reluctantly) inherited the role of coordinating all of this. It is a big job, which we try to begin even before Rosh Hashanah. We must borrow extra sifrei Torah, recruit volunteers to run the cycles of Torah reading and determine the flow of the hakafot. (In order to minimize the chaos and to allow us to sing with a single voice, we have only one song per hakafa and these songs are predetermined in advance. Because we favour Carlebach style prayer, people assume we are kind of chassidish by nature but Simchat Torah demonstrates how truly yekke we are.) In the course of the day itself, the chairs are set up and taken away half a dozen times. Last year we had eight sifrei Torah, distributed 150 bags of candy to children of the Kehilah (congregation), read almost 70 cycles of V'zot HaBracha in eight separate stations, and had approximately 350 people called to the Torah, including many for the first time.
I have a phobia of crowded spaces so putting myself in the middle of this maelstrom may seem an odd choice. But each year I do it, because what we do at Shira Hadasha is a tikkun. It is a tikkun for all the little girls – and adult women – for whom Simchat Torah stood as the apogee of their exclusion. It is a tikkun for people like my childhood rabbi, for whom the idea of dishonouring a building was more disturbing than dishonouring and marginalizing the women within it. With bad childhood memories and my aversion for large crowds, Simchat Torah will never be one of my favourite holidays. But every year, I set aside my ambivalence and not only attend services, but place myself in the middle of the dancing and the chaos. I do it because of those women who, thanks to Shira Hadasha and our sister minyanim around the world, will remember this chag (holiday) as the first time they were called to the Torah; for whom Simchat Torah will stand as a symbol of their inclusion.
Alexandra is a member and a gabayit at Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem. Originally from London, England, she now lives in Israel where she works as a Jewish educator and tour guide.