A Woman's Place is at Prayer — at Kotel or Upper West Side

Hostility at Western Wall Recalls Ivy League Minyan

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By Leah Bieler

Published May 28, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
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I sat in the tiny women’s section, trying to block out the noise and focus on the task at hand. By the time the men’s reading was coming to a close, and each man had had an aliyah, I was pretty sure I had it down. I looked up at the other women in the room, on whom I hadn’t had a chance to focus.

If I was nervous about not embarrassing myself — or the entire egalitarian community, for that matter — these other women looked positively terrified. All of them had beaten out thousands of other applicants to get into Yale (including me — Yale had politely suggested that I attend Northwestern), and most now worked at top-tier law firms or investment banks.

In their “other” lives, they had been committed modern Orthodox Jews with expensive day school educations, gap years at yeshivas in Israel, summers at fancy Jewish camps. But none had ever been close to a Torah scroll.

I took the yad in my hand, stood up to read and beckoned them to approach. One by one, they each had their first aliyah. They kissed the Torah with the wimple, trembling, and said the brachot, the blessings that they had heard thousands of times but never uttered.

Their faces shone with tears, and some of them were sobbing so hard that it took a while for them to complete the task. All I could think was what a crime it was that these women had been denied the pleasure of serving God in this particular way for more than a quarter of their lives.

And maybe I imagined it, but I think I saw something in the men’s faces, as well. A twinge of jealousy that they had taken this privilege so for granted that they would never be able to experience the intensity of the emotion that they were seeing unfold in front of them. They had had countless aliyot and had taken them for granted, never experiencing the kind of transformative moment that these women were having, faces shining with tears but also from within.

And me in the middle. I had grown up with a Conservative Judaism in flux. Some days, I would count in the minyan where I prayed, some not. Some days I could lead the community, others I cringed while my male classmates butchered a Torah reading they hadn’t bothered to learn properly. I never had the privilege of doing a less-than-perfect reading.


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