(JTA) — When Alyza Lewin became a bat mitzvah in 1977, the fact that she had a ritual ceremony at all was still relatively revolutionary in Orthodox circles. But she took the rite of passage a step further, and did something that, for Orthodox Jews at the time, was considered the exclusive province of men.
She chanted the Scroll of Esther, known as the megillah, in front of a mixed-gender audience in suburban Washington, D.C. on the festival of Purim. Among the crowd were her grandfathers, who were both Orthodox rabbis. Lewin was the eldest of two daughters, and her father wanted to find a ritual she would be allowed to perform while remaining within the bounds of traditional Jewish law.
“My father, when it came time for the bat mitzvah, was trying to figure out what was something meaningful that a young woman could do,” she said. “So he decided: My Hebrew birthday is four days before Purim — he would teach me how to chant Megillat Esther.”
For many modern Orthodox women more than four decades later, women’s megillah readings have moved from the cutting edge to squarely within the norm. The increasing number of women’s readings is an indication of the growth of Orthodox feminism — and its concrete expression in Jewish ritual.
According to the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, at least 105 women-led megillah readings, for both mixed-gender and women-only audiences, are taking place worldwide this year. In 2019, according to JOFA, the number hit a peak of 139, up at a relatively steady pace from 63 in 2012, when the group began collecting data. The number of readings dipped last year due to COVID-19 precautions, but JOFA expects this year’s total to come close to the pre-pandemic high once congregations get around to notifying the organization of their events.
JOFA’s executive director, Daphne Lazar Price, said she had observed but did not quantify a related phenomenon where she’s seen “tremendous growth:” girls marking their bat mitzvahs with megillah readings, as Lewin did.
“Instead of a traditional Torah reading service or women’s tefillah [prayer] service or a partnership minyan service, we’ve seen a lot more… girls read, in part or the entire, Megillat Esther,” Price said.
Although traditional Jewish law, or halacha, obligates women to hear the megillah on par with men, many more traditionalist Orthodox communities still do not hold women’s megillah readings. Some Orthodox rabbis may believe that women need to hear the scroll chanted but should not themselves chant the scroll. Another objection stems from the idea that synagogues should gather the largest audience possible to hear the megillah, rather than fragment the crowd into smaller readings.
Still others worry that a women’s megillah reading will act as a sort of gateway to non-Orthodox practice more broadly. Gender egalitarianism is one of the principal dividing lines between Orthodoxy and more liberal Jewish movements, and some Orthodox rabbis say women who organize a megillah reading of their own may then venture into chanting Torah or leading public prayers, which women in the vast majority of Orthodox communities are not allowed to perform.
“The fear is, if we give a little, it’s a slippery slope and once we allow women’s megillah readings people intentionally will manipulate or maybe even accidentally just get confused,” said Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb, an Israeli Orthodox rabbi formerly based in Baltimore, describing some rabbis’ concerns regarding women’s megillah readings in a lecture last month surveying a range of perspectives on the topic. “If women’s megillah readings are OK, then women’s Torah reading is OK, then women rabbis are OK and before you know it, I don’t know what.”
In recent years, a growing number of Orthodox women rabbinic leaders have weighed in on the question as well. Maharat Ruth Friedman, a spiritual leader at the Orthodox congregation Ohev Sholom: The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., said women reading megillah may feel more acceptable to Orthodox communities that see women’s performance of other rituals as a step too far away from Orthodoxy.
“It is kind of the one semi-kosher or kosher thing that women in more [religiously] right-wing communities can do,” Friedman said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that the rabbis allow them to meet in the synagogue space, but at least that there is a contingent of women who will go to them.”
In some communities, women’s megillah readings might take place in private homes or in other spaces outside the synagogue. Some Orthodox rabbis permit women to read the megillah for other women, but prohibit it in front of men.
The idea of feminist megillah readings has become so mainstream that it was a storyline on “Shababnikim,” an Israeli comedy series about renegade haredi Orthodox yeshiva students. One of them is alarmed by his fiancee’s determination to read the megillah for a group of women and barges in to stop the reading. He later decides that despite his discomfort he should be more flexible in the future, within the constraints of Orthodox law, to make the woman he loves feel respected.
At the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, a liberal Orthodox synagogue in New York City, women have been reading megillah for decades. Founding Rabbi Avi Weiss wrote a Jewish legal analysis explaining why women are permitted to read the scroll in 1998.
“I personally am someone who advocates, and in our synagogue community looks to expand, women’s roles and give more opportunities for women,” said the synagogue’s current senior rabbi, Steven Exler.
Lewin is also watching the practice expand at her synagogue, Washington, D.C.’s Kesher Israel Congregation, where women have read from the megillah for nearly three decades. This year, she’s reading the fewest chapters of the megillah she has ever read. She usually reads half of the scroll, including a difficult passage in the ninth chapter. But for this week’s women’s reading at her synagogue, a new volunteer signed up to chant the ninth chapter.
Still, despite her pioneering reading at age 12, and her decades of chanting, Lewin has encountered the Orthodox community’s ambivalence around women and megillah firsthand. For many years, she borrowed her father’s scroll when Purim came around. But about eight years ago, Lewin asked him for her own scroll as a gift, which can cost upwards of $1,800.
Lewin’s father traveled to Israel to find a scribe to commission the megillah. But he wasn’t comfortable telling the scribe the megillah would go to a woman, and instead said it was a gift for his son-in-law.
Years later, Lewin was at a wedding where she met the scribe who wrote her treasured megillah, and revealed to him that the scroll belonged to her.
“He was thrilled,” Lewin said. “I think it was his individual personality. There are some individuals who are very supportive of the increase in opportunity for women, that women are becoming much more learned in terms of Jewish law.”
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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