The essence of Simchat Torah is the completion of the reading of the Torah scroll, and the joy and celebration that naturally ensues from the annual culmination of the Torah-reading cycle. Because of the traditional means of celebration, women’s participation has historically been more passive rather than active, which leaves synagogues with the challenge of how to include women in the full observance of the day.
Simchat Torah presents the perfect opportunity to highlight programming that addresses needs and introduces new norms, all within the parameters of Orthodoxy. Building authentic moments is the goal with the ability to inspire individuals.
Several years ago, a colleague and I were discussing this exact issue: how to create meaningful opportunities for women on Simchat Torah morning. She shared with me that in her synagogue, when the men were being called to the Torah, the women gathered together to learn Torah. It struck me that to celebrate the Torah through study is a true fulfillment of the essence of Simchat Torah.
We started the Simchat Torah morning lesson (shiur) at Lower Merion Synagogue outside of Philadelphia and, as the years went by, the idea caught on and more women attended. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Seeing how well-received this idea was in the synagogue, it was a natural decision for the Orthodox Union Women’s Initiative to launch the program on a national level.
As a national program, the details are intentional and speak to our greater mission. The program is more than just a series of classes on Simchat Torah morning in individual synagogues. Highlighting local female scholars is a chance for communities to appreciate the some of the talent in their midst. Each woman comes with her own voice and Torah knowledge to share with others who are looking for inspiration and connection.
This is our second year running the program, and more than 40 synagogues around the country now are participating, elevating the holiday experience for women.
Women are coming forward and asking for these opportunities; women are offering to teach Torah; and, significantly, synagogue leadership is helping to create the space for this. And it is more than simply about Simchat Torah. Communities across the country are looking for more engaging learning from a variety of texts for women; they are searching for opportunities for growth and inspiration for women at all phases and stages.
The call to action is national, yet the action itself is local.
We are hopeful that women’s learning, joy and celebration on Simchat Torah will become the North American communal norm of every synagogue, and that this momentum will extend throughout the year.
Dr. Adina Shmidman is the founding director of the Orthodox Union’s Women’s Initiative and rebbetzin of the Lower Merion Synagogue in Bala Cynwyd, Pa.
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