During the year that the midrasha I eventually opened was in the planning phase, my teenage son came home from yeshiva high school, where he had spent Yom Kippur, and exclaimed “If I could experience Yom Kippur like that again, I’d fast a second day.” An oleh hadash with a complex relationship to the new world around him, this was a raw and simple statement of satisfaction and contentment, a refreshing and profound moment of clarity for him that was both gratifying and mystifying to me. I had heard before from my husband and other men about the apparently indescribable yeshiva Yamim Noraim experience. Waxing nostalgic, men I know who are my age and aware of the vast changes that have taken place in the world of Jewish education since the turn of the millennium, harbor a deep-seated hope that this aspect of yeshiva has remained untouched, that their sons will encounter the majesty of a Rosh Hashanah and awe of a Yom Kippur alongside their rebbeim in the beit midrash and that they, in turn, will experience what has become a sort of rite of passage in the brotherhood of Orthodox Jewish men. My husband noticeably beamed while I tried to dig deeper—What made it so special? The content of the derashot? Gorgeous hazanut? A lot of singing and dancing? In a home that prides itself on the equal distribution of Torah learning, ideas, and religious experiences, I was left out of the loop on this one, as my husband and son shared a knowing nod about the inexplicability of it all.
To be honest, I was jealous. I wanted in—for myself, my students, and all young women with the fortune to find themselves part of the Torah learning community in Israel. If my decision to open the midrasha grew largely out of my sense of mission to strengthen a Jewish community already on a track toward the democratization of intellectualism, why shouldn’t it also tackle its attendant, the democratization of spirituality? While certain midrashot, particularly Israeli ones, already hold Yom Kippur tefilot with a yeshiva flavor, I was acutely aware that they are in the minority and that the vast majority of young women learning in Israel for the year are dispersed to various yeshivot and communities, where the default is for them to simply tag-along to whatever shul happens to have space for them. Knowing that it could be otherwise, it was important for me to harness the potentially transformative power of Yom Kippur for my students. Thus began my search for the elusive Yamim Noraim experience for women.
A few weeks ago, we held what I hope will become a tradition—our first annual midrasha-centered and run Yom Kippur davening. Without a real grasp on what makes tefilah in yeshiva so meaningful, but with an eye toward avoiding the typical scenario in which young women are sidelined within the mainstream service, I invited my students to constitute the majority and daven alongside a traditional minyan of ten men in my living-room. To prepare the women to take on a central role, connect them to the tefilot, each other, the midrasha and, of course, the endeavor of teshuvah itself, our ba’al tefilah conducted a pre-Yom Kippur nusah workshop at the midrasha, explaining how the different unique High Holiday tunes, dating back at least as far as the early Middle Ages, set the mood for the tefilot, and, if understood properly, constitute a musical Midrash on the prayer. We practiced a bit, vowed to sing and dance when it made sense but did not feel contrived (as per students’ request), and I stepped into the shoes of a Rosh Yeshiva/gabbai/shamash to whatever extent possible—by day: utilizing my shiur to galvanize the girls to ponder the significance of Yom Kippur; by Night: begging the men of my community to abandon their regular Yom Kippur plans and join our experiment, making executive decisions regarding zmanei tefilah and shul protocol (the mehitzah would be opaque on bottom and somewhat transparent on top to allow for visibility; no, we would not have women do petihah even though we could argue that it is halakhically acceptable, since it would be cumbersome and distracting within the confines of the space and make the men feel uncomfortable), gearing up to carry the singing (yes, I would sing extra loudly, even though it might make some men feel uncomfortable, since it was necessary for the success of the minyan), preparing derashot, setting aside Yom Kippur-appropriate reading material for anyone interested, publicizing my post-Kol Nidrei shiur and, along with the midrasha’s mashgiah ruhani, handling logistics, including arranging transportation and housing, the acquisition of chairs, mehizot, sifrei Torah, seudah ha-mafseket and break-fast foods. My children, who for lack of time would not be provided with clothing that actually fit for Yom Tov, nevertheless proudly told neighbors that their house would become a shul this Yom Kippur. “I think my mommy is the rabbi,” said my 4-year-old.
After hatarat nedarim and kaparot for those who needed it, seudah ha-mafseket together, the exchange of fasting tips, and feverish calls home for apologies and well-wishes, all of which lent a palpable energy to the air even before the onset of the fast, Yom Kippur finally arrived. Kol Nidrei on the porch with the sun setting behind us immediately rendered this Yom Kippur “different” and set a tone, directing our attention toward the cosmos. With their newfound appreciation for the rhyme and reason of nusah, a davening peppered with popular songs, at a good pace, without the weeping hazanish machinations that the students professed to find alienating and disorienting, the girls sang powerfully, freely, and from a place of authenticity, throughout the day, often guiding the men when they tended toward the off-key. After a review of the halakhot associated with bowing, many of the girls scrambled to find a small cloth or towel and all but one opted to get down on the floor completely, the one who remained standing—a creative, contemplative, and independent type—ostensibly wrestling with the spectacle and meaning of an entire room of prostrating Jews. After a woman, their Rosh Hamidrasha, gave the derashah, we shared a laugh, as the students offered the traditional compliment—“shkoyah!”—and the hearty handshakes usually reserved for the other side of the mehitzah. During the “break,” each girl made a conscious decision of what to do with herself and ultimately, tellingly, everyone stayed in shul—some to rest, some to entertain the kids who hung around, some to learn Torah and some (honest to God) to continue davening. In the aftermath of a long day of introspection, navigating the balance between being an individual and part of a community, as Neilah descended, a pensiveness hung in the room. “Hashem hu he-Elohim” rang out confidently by some, tentatively by others, but seemingly not by rote. Our little experiment had been a success, to the extent that Yom Kippur davening did not have the run-of-the-mill affect. We had accomplished some version of the idiosyncratic yeshiva experience.
In the aftermath of Yom Kippur, I have only a few empirical statements from students to point me toward the subtle elements that contributed to the quality of our davening and may stand at the crux of the yeshiva experience I sought to capture. Students said: “This was the first time in my life that I attended all of Yom Kippur davening. I was surprised and proud of myself,” “I felt like I was front and center,” “This is the first time in shul that I felt my voice mattered,“ “I felt like the derashah was speaking directly to me,” “I forgot that you’re a mother. It was strange and nice to see you with your children,” and “This was the most enjoyable Yom Kippur I have ever experienced.” In trying to put my finger on precisely what made this Yom Kippur effective, I understood their statements to mean that they learned that davening could be pleasant, desirable, engaging, and uplifting, that they felt a new sense of responsibility, membership, and ownership in shul. They had an appreciation for how Yom Kippur applies to each one of them, as an individual and part of a specific demographic with particular needs, concerns, anxieties, and desires. They discovered that simply sharing space with people who are as vulnerable, on a similar quest, or whose inclinations and aspirations are clear, engenders a sense of intimacy, purpose, and meaning. Experiencing Yom Kippur with teachers, who are usually contextualized within the beit midrash, takes religion out of the realm of abstractions and into the realm of application. They found that Yom Kippur need not be associated with only guilt, sin, and fear but also pleasure and joy, that creating an atmosphere on Yom Kippur through the selection of tunes, quality of the singing, dancing, speeches, pace and/or other elements is a kind of art that is possible for them to take in and savor.
Entirely in keeping with the shanah ba-aretz’s—and dare I say millennials’—toolbox for spiritual growth, factors such as attention, “mattering,” relevance, applicability, ownership, identification, belonging, and enjoyment ultimately brought my students inspiration and satisfaction. Males in the room seemed, fittingly, to have been moved by a sense of altruism, as one participant in the minyan, said: “During the davening I kept thinking about the idea of hazal that the most meaningful prayer, is ‘selfless’ prayer, where one’s prayers are directed toward or for the other. To the extent that this davening had an ulterior motive of inclusiveness, I feel that we were all given an opportunity for an enhanced experience on Yom ha-Kadosh!” Contrastingly, but equally unsurprising, young women who for a long time have felt themselves as spectators on the periphery of the tefilot, found uplift in being tended to. Knowing that Yom Kippur was for them, about them, and by them was key for my students.
As for me personally, this Yom Kippur presented a whole slew of conflicted thoughts and feelings. First and foremost, I was proud—that the men and women had stepped up and helped to produce a robust “event,” that things were going well, that I had discerned and harnessed an opportunity for spiritual growth for my students. I was also anxious, the entire time, mainly because of the magnitude of the responsibility to create a more meaningful Yom Kippur after convincing the girls to trust me that it could have meaning. To me, this seemed my one shot to prove it.
When it came to my contributions and leadership as a woman, of course, “the balance,” as those interested in the predicament of modern life for women are wont to call it, reared its ugly head, as I was expected to function simultaneously as the consummate rabbinic professional and as hostess and caretaker to both my children and my students (at least while my husband was occupied as the shaliah tzibbur). I wondered, after a long day of basically ignoring my children so that I can serve as educator, mentor, and spiritual guide, only to find myself at the end of the day frantically heating up and setting out the break-fast foods in the kitchen, whether expectations on women can ever allow them to function fully in either the clerical or maternal sphere. I wrestled with two main aspects of my experience: a) the necessity of choosing between being present for my family or my students/congregants/“flock” and b) that I am being judged for my warmth and maternalism (a notion expressed in various ways throughout my tenure as a rabbinic personality, including when one young woman said it was heartwarming to see me with my kids), and not only for wisdom, erudition, quality of my analysis, or pedagogy. This kind of judgement is not usually placed upon Roshei Yeshiva.
I will be honest and say that I was also surprisingly self-righteous. Knowing what a central role I played in the davening, my husband asked me afterwards if I felt disenfranchised and demeaned when I was relegated to a place behind the white curtain. In fact, my thoughts were to the contrary. Each time I gave a speech, answered a shailah, directed the minyan on logistical matters and the like, and then withdrew awkwardly and incongruously from the scene, I considered it a lesson or, at least, food for thought for anyone present about the role of women in Jewish praxis. I hoped it gave pause, especially to my students, to consider either a) the extent to which we can include talented and capable women even more in communal tefilah or b) reframing our understanding of the Ezrat Nashim, so that it does not have to be associated with subjugation and inferiority. After all, the majority of praying people in this particular set-up was women and the most “important” or “rabbinic” figure in the room was on the women’s side of the mehitzah. If behind the curtain is where great things are happening, including the more robust singing, derashot, shiurim, and where the spiritual and intellectual leaders are located, perhaps that can be seen as the more desirable place to be.
At the end of the day, I was concerned with one major question: whether the model before me was sustainable long-term and replicable. Could we–and should we–continue to limit the number of men interested in joining us so that we could demographically lean female? Boys who return home can often recreate some aspects of yeshiva or evoke memories of yeshiva davening by incorporating their special tunes or traditions into shul prayer. Even if a midrasha could create the kind of shared language that yeshivot establish, would young women have the wherewithal to bring such a phenomenon to their communities outside of Israel? If the midrasha would sing a special niggun at a certain point in the service, would it stay at the midrasha, since none of my students would be able to bring it to the bimah of any Orthodox shul? When women from my community stood outside our living-room “sanctuary” with their small children or told my students that they had been putting their ears to the wall to be able to take part in the most salient parts of davening, and when women and other seminary students packed the room for a late-night shiur, my students discovered that women long to nourish their intellectual and spiritual sides even when they have families and that the community can and should provide frameworks for them to do so. Would my students have the capacity to bring about the type of cultural revolution that would allow them to demand more of their communities later on in life?
Our Yom Kippur minyan consisted of 40 people in my living-room, but to me, and I believe to my students, it was representative of something much larger. It was a commentary on what already exists, an assertion of what can be, and a challenge to ourselves, our institutions, and communities. For twenty-five hours, a group of young women davened, sang, contemplated, and grappled with sincerity, intensity, and emotion, and ultimately captured that quality that to me once seemed to be the je ne sais quoi of a shanah ba-aretz Yom Kippur. Reflecting on that day helps me to identify with my son’s declaration a couple of years ago. If this kind of experience awaited me again, perhaps I too would consider fasting a second day.