by Elisha Gechter
I held up the etrog, inspecting it not only for the black spots that my father taught me would render it unkosher, but also for an overall esthetic appearance that would appeal to me personally. (Bumpy, hourglassshaped, green, and pitomless are my preferences.) And so it went with the branches of the lulav, the leaves of the hadasim and the aravot—I knew the halakhot and what to look for, but I had also been schooled in developing personal taste and a proactive approach to hiddur mitzvah (enhancement of the mitzvah). Being raised in the Open Orthodox Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR), I knew from elementary school age that my family wanted to be sure I was well versed in Jewish tradition, but that I also found a way to be personally expressive. This was true all year long, but Sukkot was a time that highlighted these values for me.
I have enjoyed picking out my own set of arba minim (four species) for almost two decades in places that ranged from the open streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan to the Israel Book Shop in Brookline, Massachusetts. A highlight of taking the four species is the hoshanot prayer on the first two days of the hag when shul is full to yom tov capacity. Growing up in the HIR, I observed a majority of women bringing their own sets of arba minim. Even though the circle of women participating in hoshanot was not as large as the men’s march, it was sizable. Our circle did not snake up the bimah in front of the aron kodesh, but did encircle a woman holding a sefer Torah, who centered us as we marched around. We followed as the hazzan chanted the lines of the hoshanot, and we added our voices to singing the refrains and choruses of “hoshana.”
After moving out of Riverdale, I struggled to find such an atmosphere elsewhere. I have been living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for the past nine years, and the first few Sukkots were lonely for me on the women’s side of the mehitzah at Harvard Hillel. In the optimal case, there would be three other women with their greenery in hand—not enough to make a circle or to have the “oomph” to request a sefer Torah for “our side.” Finally, a friend who moved to town proved to be not only a good listener, but a huge help. Sharon Weiss-Greenberg (now executive director of JOFA) and her husband, Rabbi Ben Greenberg, had just come to Harvard Hillel to serve as the JLIC (Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus) couple and were already making inroads for Jewish involvement and expression. Sharon’s relationship-building and halakhic knowhow enabled us to organize a women’s circle for hoshanot. A Torah on the women’s side provided us space and grace to encourage more female community members to participate.
Opportunity for Inclusive Sukkot Davening
Fast-forward a few years, and another option emerged for inclusive Sukkot davening in Cambridge. My husband and I attend Minyan Tehillah, a ten-year-old partnership minyan that regularly meets two Shabbat mornings and one Friday night a month. They had been adding a new yom tov davening each year, and I suggested holding Sukkot davening. My husband and I had just stepped down as co-chairs, and I was assuming the role of chair of the ritual committee. Following a discussion of the topic, the committee was interested in exploring the halakhic ins and outs of the roles of men and women in Sukkot davening. Together with our halakhic advisor, we determined what would be most appropriate for the community in light of halakhah and our minyan’s makeup, arriving at an arrangement for both a man and a woman to lead the hoshanot. There would be two circles—one on each side of the mehitzah—and each would circle either a man or woman holding a Torah. The hazzanit and the hazzan would switch off calling out blocks of four responsive hoshanot. I volunteered to be the first hazzanit, paired with a male hazzan with whom I already had a good davening rapport from leading tefillah on Rosh Hashanah together.
In advance of Sukkot, we put out the word about this davening, so men and women who might otherwise not have purchased a lulav and etrog or who might not have stayed in town could choose to do so. The experience of selecting a set of arba minim that year was so much sweeter knowing how I would be using them at the beginning of the hag. The minyan leadership even provided extra lulavim and etrogim to have on hand so everyone who wanted to could participate (a tradition that continues). We ended up with a full house at davening and very lively hoshanot. Many were moved by the model. A mother of a young pre-bat-mitzvah daughter remarked, “I never want to leave Cambridge again for Sukkot—that davening was so meaningful for the two of us and for our family.”
That was four years ago; Sukkot davening continues to be strong in Cambridge. I am proud to have carved out a place where I can again find the balance between adherence to Jewish tradition and personal choice. Together with the various segments of my community, we respect legal considerations as well as social concerns. I continue to incorporate the lessons of a personally expressive approach to mitzvot. I now also enjoy the pleasure of teaching my young daughter, who I hope will also take an active role in shaping her community.
Elisha Gechter is program manager for the Wexner Israel Fellowship and the Wexner Senior Leadership Program at the Harvard Kennedy School.