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The electronic voice of the Australian Jewish Community

Letters from Jewish Australia - No.51

An Historic Shabbat Afternoon in Sydney - Welcoming the Month of Av

By Geraldine Jones

Rosh Chodesh Av 5757 - 3rd August 1997

This past Shabbat, 18 Australian Jewish Women made history by holding their own mincha (afternoon) service in the Mizrachi Synagogue. WTG, the Sydney Women's Tefillah (Prayer) Group service was led by three mothers (two nursing and one pregnant) while the dads looked after the older children. The officiants are all professional women holding down responsible jobs in the workplace. All had to prepare very hard for this event, taking lessons and forfeiting valuable leisure time. The giver of the thoughtful and appropriate d'var Torah (biblical discourse) had never spoken in public before!

One wonders why, since women and men are equally obligated to pray, this event should be so surprising.

Here in Australia, where over 50% of Jewish boys and girls attend (mainly co-educational) Jewish day-schools, changes are being made towards equality. For example, at the Jewish Educators' Network conference in Melbourne last month, principal Miriam Muntz of Leibler- Yavneh College spoke of the successful introduction in her school of the regular Monday and Thursday readings, not from a Torah scroll but from a Chumash (a book containing the five books of Moses), and by the girls themselves. Most perceptively a visiting non-Jewish educator, asked: "What do they do after they leave school?"

Some orthodox women find enough spiritual satisfaction behind the mehitzah (a construction separating men and women) or on the balcony, others never attend synagogue and are spiritually fulfilled by teaching and learning, many find formalised religion altogether alienating and are satisfied by doing good deeds. Others find a spiritual element when praying aloud together, which is not found either when praying privately or with men present in a synagogue.

As Gael Hammer, an active participant in WTG says; "Groups of Jewish women have been saying prayers together - without the presence of men - for centuries. The Altneu Synagogue in Prague, built in 1240, did not have a women's gallery (ezrat nashim) for 200 years. Does that mean that women did not pray? Of course not. They prayed in venues which suited their needs, and that was most probably with their children, mothers, and other females, at home. There are community records from Italy which show that a hall was hired down the street from a synagogue especially for women to pray together. The leader of the service was called the firzogerin. She sang the prayers, much as a chazzan (cantor) does nowadays, and they were repeated by the women."

For some years, WTG has met to pray whenever Rosh Chodesh (the first day of each Hebrew month signified by the new moon) falls on a Sunday. During Rosh Chodesh it is traditional for women to refrain from doing any unnecessary work. The reason given in Pirkey D'Rabi Eliezer (chapter 45) is that this is a reward from G-d to women for having refused to hand their jewellery over to build the golden calf.

On such dates WTG has rabbinic permission to use the small synagogue at Shalom College. The service is run under Halachic guidelines omitting those parts which require a quorum of men. It is led by women fortunate enough to have had a good religious education and who find deep spiritual satisfaction in praying together.

Most importantly WTG has found a mentor in Rabbi Apple of The Great Synagogue. At every step there have been questions to ask, and patient research and answers from the Rabbi who gives Shiurum (study sessions) on "Women and Halacha "(biblical law). The privilege of conducting a service is taken very seriously. Women are making the time and effort to learn to correctly sing the Torah readings even though at the Mizrachi Synagogue reading is permitted only from a Chumash.

At Moriah College (the largest Jewish Day School in Sydney) year 11 student Rebecca Gordon and her friends have approached Jewish Studies' staff for permission to organise a student and staff Rosh Chodesh women's tefillah (prayer) group. Rebecca states that "Rosh Chodesh is a women's festival and we want to try to get the girls more involved in voluntary tefillah. On Rosh Chodesh the whole school goes to a special Mussaf (additional) service conducted by male students and staff. What we want is a separate orthodox women's service which we conduct."

Increasingly Australian Jewish women are sharing the pleasures of learning and praying together. WTG has a small group of women meeting monthly to study Talmud (using the Steinsaltz edition with English translation). Other local, grass-roots initiatives include Torah study by the women of North Shore Synagogue and at the Law School of the University of N.S.W. These groups welcome all women regardless of their age or level of Jewish education or Hebrew.

This rapidly growing self-educational movement among orthodox Jewish women is not, of course, confined to Australia and through the internet we share our achievements and trials with others around the world.

KEY, a worldwide grassroots women's group, dedicated to promoting tolerance and ahavat Yisrael (love of Israel) has contacted JOIN to invite Australian women to participate in their Rosh Chodesh effort for women to commit to learning together and to share our experiences of this with them. KEY believes that "growth happens best on a small scale -- with each person working on themselves and friends motivating each other."

WTG is indeed a good model for Jewish women, wherever they are, of how a small group can work together to strengthen Jewish values.

Shalom - Chodesh Tov

Geraldine Jones
President JOIN Inc.

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