By Michal Boyarsky, October 2013
As a child, I attended a shul in ultra-Orthodox Monsey, New York. Ours was the odd one out in that neighborhood: other families walked to shul, the men dressed in black-and-white suits and black hats, the women wearing dark dresses and thick stockings. Our family drove fifteen minutes to get to our shul, which my parents affectionately called Conservadox. The congregation was a mix of modern Orthodox families and Conservative families. My father used to joke that everyone walked to our shul—some walked from home, and others walked from the parking lot.
There was no mehitzah (gender division) at our shul, so I could sit next to my father and play with the fringes on his tallis even after I had my bat mitzvah. But women “weren’t allowed on the bima”—that’s the language that was used to describe gender at our synagogue. For my bat mitzvah, I read Haftorah on a Sunday. Afterwards, during our monthly Teen Shabbatot, the teenage boys would lead services, and I was occasionally asked to give a d’var Torah—once the ark was firmly closed.
Today, I can leyn Torah, and I’ve played a large part in getting an independent minyan started in Seattle, WA where I live now. The daveners at our minyan are often strong, independent women with much more clarity on gender and Judaism than I had as a kid davening in Monsey, New York.
A few months ago, a good friend of mine gave me a gift: a tallis, my first one. When I wrap myself inside it on Shabbat mornings, it feels wonderful–and complicated. Growing up, women never wore tallitot. The tallit still feels forbidden, bewildering in a way. Like draping myself in a flag that announces to the congregation that I am a Jewish adult, a full and important member of the community.
And I am.