By Arwen Kuttner
I was raised in a non-Orthodox home, but over the years have felt the desire to learn and observe more and more. For many years I've been part of the Orthodox community because I've wanted to "do Judaism" in what seemed to me the fullest way possible.
Sadly, these two desires -- passion for more and a desire to be within the Orthodox community -- sometimes collide painfully.
This is most apparent for me at Sukkot and on Simchat Torah. These are times of celebration when all our strict observance throughout the year--and especially the intense observance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur--suddenly transforms into celebration. After the hard work of standing in synagogue for three days, one of them while fasting, we finally come to Sukkot. We hold the lulav (palm fronds) and etrog (citrus fruit) and circle the Torah for Hoshanot. Then on Simchat Torah we dance joyously with the Torah in our arms and sing until we're hoarse… except that “we” so often excludes women.
Every year the crescendo of the year grows, and then suddenly, as we reach the peak, women simply step aside. As I’ve grown in observance over the years I’ve often felt that the women whose observance of Torah most reflects a commitment to and love for it, are expected to be the most contained from it at these celebrations, standing behind a mechitzah (partition) and merely watching.
Now, in my community there is an alternative minyan. Minyan Tiferet meets about every four-six weeks and follows the model of Shira Hadasha minyanim in which women and men both participate in the service within halachic bounds. Years ago when it began, I wasn't sure I wanted to become involved. I was nervous about whether it really would be halachic and even wondered about the motivations of others involved. I wondered if they wanted some kind of less serious version of Judaism. Then something happened that left me feeling utterly isolated within my own community.
That year at Sukkot our rabbi eagerly led the men of our synagogue outside for Hoshanot. I had anticipated this and asked ahead of time if he could also announce a circle for women. He agreed and announced that we could walk in our own circle. I stood alone for a moment meekly holding my lulav and etrog, but no one joined me. No precedent had been set. Our community was completely unaccustomed to including women. I felt embarrassed and alone. Gone was the prescribed joy of the holiday and I wanted to go home.
So that's when Evan Hochberg, the founder of Minyan Tiferet approached me. He told me how years ago he had been in synagogue and saw something similar happen. There were several women who had enthusiastically been praying throughout the service. When it came time for the Hoshanot, they quietly finished praying and left as the men joyously circled the synagogue. Evan told me he couldn’t imagine celebrating as a community when half the community could not participate.
So I decided to give Minyan Tiferet a try. I asked a lot of questions that helped me feel more confident in the halachic nature of the minyan. I found quickly that on the weeks it met, I enjoyed being there more than I enjoyed being in synagogue. Soon Evan asked me to join the Board. Before long, I helped plan a meaningful Torah learning event during the summer, learned how to leyn (read Torah) and I became the coordinator for Torah readings. In short, I got hooked.
Last year, we had our first Sukkot service and I was given the opportunity to lead the Hoshanot service. Evan held the Torah between the men's and women's sides. The men circled on their side, the women circled on theirs, and everyone participated while I called out the Hoshanot in my loudest, proudest voice. Let me say that again... everyone participated. Even my five-year old daughter walked beside me carrying her toy lulav and etrog and didn't once interrupt with a tug on my sleeve. She could feel the importance. That night when we talked about the good and bad of our day she named the Hoshanot as one of her most important things.
The Torah actually prescribes us to approach Sukkot with joy. Yet how often do we hear laments about a lack of simcha (joy), a lack of passion, a lack of participation?
I’ve had the simcha and the passion for a long time. It only gets shaky when I can’t express it. Now that I can fully participate I can once again follow what the Torah asks of me on Sukkot, to rejoice and be completely happy.
Originally from Oregon, Arwen Kuttner currently writes and teaches in Bergen County, NJ. Publications include articles at http://www.aish.com, blog posts at Powerful Learning Practice, fiction at Fiction365 and an anthology of poetry called Gathering Pieces.