Photograph by Robert Kalfus

(WOMENSENEWS)–Ronnie Becher is an Orthodox Jew. And at her Passover table, women get their due.

Instead of four sons asking the questions that begin the retelling of the Passover tale, it is four children. Instead of the father telling the ancient story of exodus to his son, it is a parent telling a child.

And next to the traditional cup of wine awaiting the return of the prophet Elijah sits a cup of water dedicated to Miriam, the ancient prophetess and sister of Moses. Miriam’s Cup is passed around the table and each guest pours a bit of their water into the goblet.

In the Passover tale, Miriam is associated with water. Alongside her mother, she put the baby Moses into a basket on the river. And when the Jews wandered the desert, they had water because of her. When Miriam died, the wells dried up.

Becher, a 53-year-old mother of four, instituted these changes as a result of a quiet movement among Orthodox Jewish women.

It began in 1979, when a group of them began doing something that at the time was ground-breaking: They prayed together.

From Homes to Synagogue

With the permission of their rabbi, Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, N.Y., the women, all Orthodox, met and prayed together a handful of times over the next year or so, celebrating Jewish holidays in one woman’s home. Then their rabbi allowed them to move their meeting into the synagogue, where it continues to meet each month.

One of the women involved in the earliest days of the movement was Blu Greenberg, founder of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, a New York-based organization devoted to what may seem to be contradictory demands of Orthodox Judaism and feminism. (Blue Greenberg was honored by Women’s eNews as a Leader for the 21st Century in 2003.)

Although the prayer group was still at what Greenberg calls "the radical edge of the community" in the 1970s, it nonetheless was careful to stay within the clear-cut bounds of Orthodoxy.

The women, for instance, did not say prayers reserved for men or wear revealing clothing, which Orthodoxy prohibits. They did not question the law requiring separate spheres for men and women.

The women were not rebelling against the tradition, said Greenberg, but seeking to reform it from within. Female scholars and rabbis paved the way by reexamining texts and finding new support for their arguments that women deserved to pray in their own right, not just from behind a divider.

"You don’t take matters into your own hands," Greenberg said. "The chain of tradition is very strong, very powerful. Everything new is still connected to the chain of tradition and always connected, somehow, back to Sinai in some way."

The women recite the same ancient prayers in the same ancient melodies as Jews have for thousands of years. The only thing different about their service is that it is composed entirely of women.

Since that first group, many other female Orthodox groups have spread across the country, from New York to Los Angeles.

Partnership Minyan

As it continues to pioneer women’s place within the sect, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance now supports the growing number of so-called partnership minyans, an egalitarian service that began in Riverdale about a year and a half ago in which women lead certain prayers and can read from the Torah before the entire congregation at certain times.

Rabbi Weiss, an advocate for women’s leadership within Orthodoxy, called it a "very real debate," with rabbis arguing over the meaning of the ancient Jewish laws.

While Becher remains devoted to her family’s synagogue, she has also begun worshipping at the partnership minyan, which she calls the next step for Orthodox women.

The minyan meets once a month at a space they rent from another synagogue. Women lead prayers before the entire congregation and read from the Torah at certain times. Seating remains separate still and, when standing at the pulpit, men and women take care to stay on their respective sides.

There are a smattering of the services in New York City, Washington, Boston, Chicago and a huge one in Jerusalem that Becher said is "packed to the gills" every week, with hundreds of men and women worshipping as equals.

Not Always Orthodox

Becher was not always Orthodox.

She grew up in a Conservative Jewish home. But she went to a religious school and found herself in a circle of Jewish Orthodox friends who were more observant than she was. And she found that she liked being more religious, especially because of the sanctity of the Jewish Sabbath, when religious Jews spend time with their families, do not drive, use phones or watch TV.

She fell in love with the warmth of the community, the emphasis on family and the spirituality.

Orthodox Jews live by a strict set of laws governing everything from what to eat and when to setting the Sabbath apart for rest to what to wear. Conservative Judaism, however, allows for more gray areas. Becher liked the rules.

"It’s a built-in system," she said. "It was set. It was structured. You didn’t fool around with it."

But as a woman, she was kept at arm’s length from the heart of the worship.

Away From Center of Service

In contrast to a Conservative synagogue, where men and women sit among each other, in an Orthodox service women sit in a separate section. Becher felt she was being pushed away from the spiritual and intellectual center of the service.

"I loved all of the parts except the woman part," she said.

Then, around 1980, she found the women’s group.

At the monthly meetings she found women’s voices melding softly as they recited the ancient prayers. She found women who knew the liturgy as well as most rabbis. Some wore prayer shawls, another traditionally male part of Judaism.

For her, it was an answer to a prayer.

"There’s something very special about dovening (praying) in a community of women," Becher said. "There’s a wonderful sense of spirituality."

Today, the separate sections in Rabbi Weiss’s synagogue are virtually identical.

Men and women have equal space and equal views of the ark, where the Torahs are kept.

Whereas women were once not even allowed to touch the Torah, the sacred scrolls are now passed through the women’s section. And, the bema, the pulpit where the services are conducted, is in "neutral territory."

It is now common, Rabbi Weiss said, for women to speak from the pulpit and or even give an explanation of that week’s biblical text.

As women have begun to learn the same things as men–to grapple with the same questions of Jewish law and to study the same rabbinic texts–their role, while distinct from that of men, has evolved along with the prayer groups, said Greenberg.

The debate, she said, is becoming a question of "equal dignity" versus "equal roles." While Orthodoxy dictates different roles for men and women, not every distinction is a symbol of inequality.

"We’re basically saying there has to be equal dignity for women," Greenberg said. "You don’t have to blur the lines."

Lani Perlman, a freelance writer in New York City, is studying at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Her writing has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, The Indianapolis Star and the Riverdale Press.



For more information:

Seven Who Create New Pathways for Success
Blu Greenberg, founder, Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance:

Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance:

Hebrew Institute of Riverdale: