Keeping children engaged in Jewish life through the challenging years of adolescence is generally considered a good thing, right? That’s why it is difficult for me to understand how a Jewish school can turn down two teenagers’ request to hold the Torah. At the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy, a coed Modern Orthodox Jewish day school in Silver Spring, Maryland, however, that’s exactly what happened when Lea Herzfeld and Yakira Zimand recently asked to be allowed to carry a scroll around the girls’ section of the school synagogue on Monday and Thursday mornings.
Though Berman Hebrew Academy Headmaster Joshua Levisohn acknowledged that there is no halakhic or Jewish legal reason that prevents women from holding a Torah, he said that the policy change was just not something the school wanted to adopt. Apparently, Levisohn initially told Lea and Yakira to collect names on a petition to prove there was widespread interest in allowing girls to participate in the sacred practice, but when they presented him with 380 signatures, he said it wasn’t appropriate to determine a decision like this on a public petition.
Lea and Yakira are passionate about Torah. There’s no innovative program needed to get them involved. All they ask is to simply hold the central book of their people. And though Jewish law doesn’t prohibit it, it makes others in their community uncomfortable, so their school administration tells them no.
Look, I do not come at this issue without bias. I graduated from Lea and Yakira’s school (then called the Hebrew Academy of Greater Washington) in 1990, and during my time there, I often felt frustrated by what I found to be Orthodoxy’s senseless and sexist rules. I asked rabbis questions I knew they didn’t want to hear, and I wore skirts I knew were shorter than the dress code allowed. But one thing I never did was issue a request as wise and bold as the one these girls made. Maybe that’s just not where my interests were then. Perhaps it just did not occur to me that I could.
The story from the Berman Hebrew Academy also comes as my 7-year-old daughter Adina is preparing for her Chagigat Chumash at Denver Jewish Day School. At that celebration, each child in Adina’s class will receive his or her very own bible. When I think about how excited Adina is to soon get that book, I simply cannot imagine having to tell her in five years, when she reaches the age of bat mitzvah, that as a woman, she is no longer allowed to hold a scroll that contains the very same stories as her beautiful second grade chumash. That things have changed for her, but not for her male peers.
Last night, Adina and I began a mother-daughter program at her school through an organization called Girls Leadership that “teaches girls the skills to know who they are, what they believe, and how to express it, empowering them to create change in their world.” As part of our first meeting, we wrote a contract—a list of things we all agreed to do as we learned to be and share our confident, authentic selves. Among the things we promised were to listen to one another, to disagree respectfully, and my favorite, to use our brave voices.
Lea Herzfeld and Yakira Zimand used their brave voices, and they didn’t need a Girls Leadership class to teach them how. I commend them and I thank them. And I hope that they will continue to use their brave voices for tikkun olam, healing the world.