When my family walked into our Orthodox synagogue on Monday, the first day of Sukkot, we got there in time to see women holding their own lulav and etrog and performing the processional of “hakafot” on the women’s side of the mechitza as the men made the circuit on their side. This tandem march is not something I ever saw at the modern Orthodox synagogue I grew up attending in New Jersey, and would be an unlikely sight at most Orthodox synagogues today. All my 8-year-old daughter wanted to know, though, was when she could go outside to play with her friends.
It should have been an exciting night. Anita Hill and Letty Cottin Pogrebin were scheduled to be in conversation about “Faith, Feminism, Race and the Ties that Bind” under the auspices of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and Interfaithfamily.com. But the two women sat in armchairs on the stage of the Levin Theater in Brandeis University’s student center earlier this month, lecturing the audience of 150 or so mostly middle-aged women about feminist history, rather than engaging in the deep conversation I expected to hear.
Nobody intentionally set out to make Sukkot and Simchat Torah feminist holidays. Yet, slowly but surely, these two Jewish festivals have evolved into a time of year when the envelope is pushed when it comes to women’s participation, even in Orthodox communities in which egalitarian practice isn’t easily accepted. Over the past four years, the changes picked up speed in Israel and the Diaspora as the awareness of the phenomenon of “exclusion of women” has heightened, inspiring many to push back against it at this time of year. On Sukkot, more and more women are buying and using Sukkot objects like the lulav and etrog, and helping to build and spending time in the Sukkah. On Simchat Torah reading from and celebratory dancing with the Torah on the holiday that celebrates the sacred scroll, and reading from it has become something that even women in very traditional communities are not willing to forgo.
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On Wednesday, while many Jews were camped out in synagogue repenting, Gothamist ran a story entitled “Woman Claims Synagogue Fired Her for Having Pre-Marital Sex.” Alana Shultz, 36, had been employed as program director at Congregation Shearith Israel — the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States — on the Upper West Side, for 11 years.