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Laying Tefillin Isn’t Just For Straight Men Anymore

You can learn how to do pretty much anything on YouTube. There are tutorials for decorative fruit carving, moonwalking, building a turbo jet engine, preparing for the apocalypse and, of course, how to wrap tefillin.

But when Rachel Putterman went to YouTube for instructions on how to don the ritual leather straps worn by observant Jews during weekday morning prayers, she had a hard time learning from the videos she found. Poor lighting, bad angles — and only one gender.

“I saw all these videos of Orthodox men in their basements,” Putterman said.

Putterman decided to change that with a crowdfunded project whose mission was to encourage all Jews to take on the Jewish rituals that have traditionally seemed to be the province of straight men. “All Genders Wrap,” a series of well-lit, professionally-directed tutorials, features instructors who are male, female, trans and non-binary, as well as Jews of color. The videos went up earlier this month, and have already garnered 3,500 views.

“The whole point of it is empowerment,” Putterman said.

Tefillin are a two-piece set of leather straps attached to leather boxes. Inside the boxes are important Hebrew prayers calligraphed on tiny animal-hide scrolls. One box sits at the bicep, and is held in place by leather straps that encircle the arm down to the hand. The hand is then wrapped in an intricate manner meant to spell out a name of God. The other box sits at the forehead, held in place by straps that wrap around the head and are knotted together at the top of the neck.

The boxes are based on a line from the biblical Shema prayer, which instructs Jews to “bind” the prayer on their arms and place it between their eyes. Archaeologists have discovered tefillin dating to as early as the third century BCE. Wrapping tefillin daily (though not on the Sabbath) is considered a mitzvah, or obligation, that Jews are required to observe. Whether or not women are obligated — or even forbidden — from laying tefillin has been a debate among rabbis for centuries.

Putterman, a rabbinical student, came to the rabbinate late in life. After 15 years as a lawyer representing battered women, she decided to enroll at the rabbinical school at Hebrew College, a nondenominational institution outside Boston, in 2013. Last year she decided she wanted to learn how to put on her father’s old pair of tefillin. When YouTube couldn’t teach her, she decided she wanted to help teach other people.

Initially, the videos were going to be of women wrapping tefillin. But Putterman says that she and Gita Karasov, a rabbinical student at Hebrew College who was Putterman’s “right-hand woman” for the project, decided that it should be as inclusive as possible: all genders, all colors, all ages, and both Ashkenazi- and Sephardic-style wrapping. All the better to imitate Putterman’s own Jewish community, she said. (This reporter went to summer camp with Karasov’s younger brother.)

“I just wanted to represent the community that I inhabit, and be as inclusive as possible,” she said.

Putterman and Karasov launched the project on IndieGoGo in March, and raised nearly $6,000 for the project by the middle of April. They shot their videos with a film crew in early May, flying two friends to Boston for the day-long shoot and hand-picking the other participants from their circle of friends in Boston. Putterman says they planned to have a minyan: ten Jews of various backgrounds and identities to model laying tefillin.

There have been instances of women wrapping tefillin in Jewish history, says Rabbi Rachel Adler, a professor of Jewish religious thought and feminist studies at Hebrew Union College of Los Angeles. The famous biblical commentator Rashi’s daughters may have worn tefillin, and the Talmud says Mikhal, the daughter of the ancient King Saul, did so. But that egalitarianism went out of style. When Adler began wearing tefillin 50 years ago, she had to learn from a man – and caught a lot of flak, also from men. She felt that men were regarding tefillin not as an object meant to bind them to God, but as a phallic object considered off-limits to women.

Adler added that any effort to convince Jews of different genders that they can have access to traditional ritual observance is important, especially when American Jews are increasingly secular.

“I don’t think we’re a big enough group that we can afford to write off any Jews,” Adler said.

While wearing tefillin is seen by some Jewish women and non-binary people as a egalitarian and democratizing act, some Jewish women have a ambivalent relationship to them. In 2014, Rabbi Mimi Feigelson, an Orthodox scholar, wrote that tefillin have “a magnetic field around them that emotionally and intuitively keeps women away.”

“I have found the emotional challenge of tefillin as carrying the weight of centuries of male dominance to be overwhelming,” Feigelson wrote.

Putterman realizes that her videos occupy a narrow space in Jewish observance: Jews who are liberal enough to accept that women can take on obligations traditionally reserved for men, but religious enough that they still feel obligated at all.

“It’s this small niche of people who are observant or somewhat observant, and who are committed to wearing tefillin, who are not Orthodox,” she said.

Putterman says that the size of the audience is not important: The videos are meant to help Jews of all backgrounds feel “seen.”

“I’ve gotten emails from people who say they are just crying, who find it so powerful,” Putterman said.

There’s also a practical purpose, as well: Some people live in parts of the country where there might not be people either willing or knowledgeable to teach tefillin wrapping to a non-binary person. Putterman says she was contacted by a person in Tennessee thanking her for creating the project, because there was no one around to learn from.

“It’s for that person who lives somewhere where they have no role model, nobody who looks like them,” she said.

Correction, 10/21/18, 1:20 p.m. — This article has been updated to show that Putterman is a rabbinical student, not a rabbi.

Ari Feldman is a staff writer at the Forward. Contact him at feldman@forward.com or follow him on Twitter @aefeldman

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