By Deborah Wenger
Let me start by acknowledging my privilege. I am lucky to live in a temperate climate, where outdoor gatherings have not been out of the question for most of the COVID-19 era. The shul I belong to has a large campus, so finding space for outdoor meetings has not been difficult. And I am extremely fortunate to be a member of a shul that welcomes women’s participation in every way possible.
Even when the COVID-19 pandemic forced all shuls and other institutions to close, the rabbi, shul management, officers, and all the congregants at Ohr HaTorah of Toco Hills in Atlanta were determined to keep the shul as viable and vital as possible. Zoom services and shiurim were a must, of course—but we also received treats like “ḥag in a box,” with holiday-related surprises.
Slowly, in late spring, things began to open up. Although some shuls adhered to the mandated crowd limits by having men’s-only services, Ohr HaTorah would not do that, and counted women toward all the legal limits on gatherings. At first, we met only outdoors—which was fine with me, as I have always enjoyed davening outdoors, being so close to nature.
By the Yamim Nora’im, we were again allowed indoors—although not everyone felt comfortable doing so. Our intrepid team of gabba’im and other coordinators put together a group of seven different services—early, later, indoors, and outdoors—to accommodate as many people as possible, including spacing services far enough apart to allow both mothers and fathers to attend a service, as children were not yet allowed on the premises. There were also shofar soundings in various places throughout the neighborhood so that even those who didn’t feel comfortable attending shul would be able to fulfill the mitzvah.
Women’s services also opened up slowly, but steadily. Rather than our usual raucous Simḥat Torah celebration, we held a small gathering on the holiday afternoon, at which only two women read from the Torah (in comparison, in the previous year, we had 30 readers!). Our next meeting was for our annual Megillat Esther reading, which took place mostly over Zoom—the readers came to shul and read from the scroll, but everyone else watched it online.
After Purim, more openings occurred—but many gatherings were still taking place outdoors. Our Women’s Torah and Tefillah group gets together to read all the megillot throughout the year. On Pesaḥ, we met in a wooded area behind the shul building. Considering all the nature imagery in this megillah, it was fitting to read it outdoors in a garden area. This was so successful that next year’s reading may still be held outdoors, possibly with a discussion of the imagery as well as the reading.
Megillat Ruth came next, on Shavuot. Again, we read this megillah outdoors—and were privileged to have a woman join our readers to celebrate the anniversary of her conversion to Judaism, very appropriately. For Eikhah we moved indoors—being outdoors at night was too daunting, and our group was small, so there was space indoors (and when the lights went out and we had to read by the light of our cellphones, the “atmosphere” was appropriate as well). And Kohelet was read, fittingly, in the shul sukkah.
And here we were, back at Simḥat Torah. By this year, many COVID restrictions had been lifted—but as the shul that is closest to the CDC, we are always very cautious. Mask mandates and social distancing are still in force, and all food-related events are still held outdoors, as are most youth groups. We were lucky that the Simḥat Torah weather cooperated, and the hakafot—for both women and men—moved outside. For the women’s Torah reading (17 readers this time), we moved to the Grove, a new wooded area set up just for events such as this. More than 50 women participated in communal tefillah and Torah reading under a verdant canopy.
As I write this article, activities are still in flux—but we are managing to be flexible as well. Women’s events are ongoing, but the outdoor experience has been so positive that we may just continue to have some gatherings out in the Grove, experiencing the wonders of nature along with our tefillah.
Deborah Wenger is a freelance editor living in Atlanta, Georgia. She serves as the publications manager of the JOFA Journal.