The Jewish Nomad: All the feelings that come with being a woman called to the Torah in an Orthodox synagogue

Your columnist on the boardwalk in Miami, Florida.

I didn’t know what I was missing in my Judaism… until I had my first aliyah.

Growing up in a traditional Modern Orthodox setting, I was taught that it wasn’t necessary for women to daven. It wasn’t considered one of our required mitzvot like lighting Shabbat candles. 

Women who came to shul on a regular basis were few and far between. And, if they did come, they were mostly there to pray quietly and watch the men in action.

I knew that other religious denominations had egalitarian practices. But it’s no secret we all have our Jewish biases.

As a child, I looked at female rabbis from Reform shuls like they were from a different planet. I almost found it comical.

But now, I’ve come to realize how limiting that belief is.

Although I still identify as traditional Modern Orthodox, I stand by the importance of creating community with Jews of all denominations. I’ve also met lots of awesome female rabbis, especially through working for The CJN.

But during the past year, within my own denomination, learning about partnership minyans broadened my horizons on Orthodoxy.

Partnership minyans are Orthodox, but women can read from the Torah and have aliyot, within the bounds of halakha.

What does that mean?

Mostly that women don’t count for the minyan. There’s still a mechitza, separating men and women, and we follow everything an Orthodox shul would, in regards to prayer and observance.

There would be times at the Toronto Partnership Minyan (TPM), where we’d have time to wait for quite a while to start Shabbat services, despite there being many women present.

The first partnership minyans were in 2002, in Jerusalem and New York City. Now there are plenty more around the globe.

And when I was offered an aliyah at TPM the first time I showed up—I chickened out..

I had gone out of curiosity, still taking it all in. Did I actually want to participate? Or did I simply enjoy observing Orthodox women reading from the Torah?

On my second time around, I felt like I couldn’t say no, so I went up to the bimah. 

And it was liberating.

I felt like there was this whole other world of Judaism I simply hadn’t participated in my whole life.

Having heard the tune for the aliyah many, many times, I was surprised when it flowed out of my mouth.

The folks at shul were super encouraging and supportive, explaining to me exactly what I needed to do.

If anything, it seemed they were used to explaining the ropes, since most of their female congregants had grown up in Orthodox settings and had never had this opportunity.

(The shul also attracts a few Conservative and Conservadox members, who take it one step further by donning a talit and sometimes a kippah.)

When I moved away from Toronto this past summer, a small tinge of sadness came over me when I thought I may never again get a chance to participate this way on a regular basis. 

I feel most comfortable in Orthodox or Modern Orthodox synagogues, and didn’t know of any partnership minyans in Montreal.

TPM gave me the thrill of using my voice in the service. I was even offered to learn trope—the cantillation that allows for reading from the Torah and Haftarahs—but didn’t stay long enough to do so.

But the excitement I left behind was revived this past Simchat Torah, when the traditional Shaar Hashomayim Congregation invited me to a different kind of minyan, made up entirely of women. 

Rabbah Rachel Finegold—one of the first women to be ordained at Yeshiva Maharat and the first female Orthodox clergy in Canada—announced that everyone in the congregation who wanted an aliyah would get one that morning.

As women of all generations, from girls approaching their bat mitzvahs to a number of bubbes, lined up to receive their aliyah, I got a hit of what I used to feel at TPM.

Some had tears in their eyes as they read. 

Many were nervous, having never done it before. It reminded me of my first experience.

But I was pleasantly surprised at the number of women who knew the leining from the Torah. It was a small minority, but one woman shared with me that she had taught herself over YouTube. Very impressive.

The women’s minyan was a first for many who attended. It made me want more of that feeling.

That day, I learned that the Shaar Sisterhood hosts a monthly Rosh Chodesh women’s minyan and that, in fact, there IS a partnership minyan in Montreal.

It’s amazing what goes on right under our noses. Growing up somewhere, you assume that you know all the spots.

I look forward to continuing my journey. (And being able to share those experiences with you!)

Ilana Zackon can be reached at ilanawritesthings[@] and found on Facebook and Instagram.

HEAR what else she has to say every week on Bonjour Chai