Every year on Purim afternoon my three sisters ask me the same question our at family Purim Seudah (festive meal).
“How was your Megillah reading?”
“Fine,” I reply. And it’s true. There is really nothing much to share about the standard Megillah reading I attend every year.
“How was yours?”
And then inevitably my sisters all give very enthusiastic descriptions of the readings they attended.
I should explain. You see, my mother, my three sisters, my sister in law and five of my nieces all attend special women’s Megillah readings on Purim, the kind where women read for other women.
For women, by women Megillah readings may have been an unusual phenomenon some years ago, but now they have become commonplace in modern orthodox synagogues around Israel – and in other countries too. In fact, one of my sisters, who organizes one of these readings in her community in Modiin, reports that when she started her reading several years ago in her shul (synagogue) it was was the first one of its kind in town. But this Purim she counted at least six other such readings throughout Modiin.
But my sisters and nieces don’t just attend (and organize) these readings, they are among the readers too! I have heard them practice before, but since men are not allowed at the readings I have never heard any of them “live” on Purim.
I have also heard all the stories my sisters tell. They talk about the excitement of the young girls reading a chapter of the Megillah for the first time after they turn Bat Mitzvah. They describe the mother and daughters who come year after year dressed up in matching costumes together. They tell stories about the very traditional grandmother who never attended such a reading by women, for women before but was moved to tears seeing her granddaughter read in this forum for the first time.
Most of all they describe the uplifting mood of hundreds of costumed women of all ages coming together to hear other women read the Megillah on Purim. They stress how silent it is as the Megillah is being read and the noise made when Haman’s name is mentioned, but most of all they cite the overall amazing vibe, the joyous sounds of hundreds of women singing Shoshanat Yaacov at its conclusion. They return inspired. They can’t wait till next year.
But for me, as a man, I’m sorry, but I still don’t get it.
Part of me would love to be a fly on the wall. To see what all the “fuss” is about. (Although it’s held on Purim and most everyone is in costume, I am not going to dress up as a woman just to sneak in and be a part of something I’ve never experienced before. That just wouldn’t be right.)
So I figured I would never know what it feels like – or so I thought.
I recently started working at WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization) as their new Head of English Content. Two weeks ago our Digital Content Manager told me about an event happening on the first floor of our World WIZO headquarters. It was for a WIZO program called “Otzma Tzeira” (Youth Strength) and she wanted me to attend and write an article about it. I agreed, although at that moment I had no idea what “Otzma Tzeira” was.
So, on the night of the event 200 teenage girls from all over Israel, from as far north as Nahariya all the way to Eilat, descended on our headquarters to celebrate the conclusion of their participation in Otzma Tzeira.
I quickly learned that Otzma Tzeira, which was established in 2003 and quickly became a flagship program of WIZO Israel’s Family Welfare Division, helps at-risk girls aged 13-18 who have suffered emotional traumas, social difficulties and dysfunction in the family, to express themselves artistically, develop a personal identity and learn to make better choices through group experiences and utilizing empowerment values.
14 groups of 15 girls, who are chosen by their school advisors for participation, met 15 times at their local WIZO branches across Israel. They took part in individual and group activities in order to develop awareness of their own personal, psychological and physical development, as well as to improve their decision-making skills.
For 15 weeks, the girls learned photography, film production, theater, and more. Through the art, which allows each participant to personally express herself, the program helps boost their self confidence and empower them.
“The Otzma Tzeira program focuses on the challenges that every teenage girl faces.” Cathy Sagie, head of WIZO’s Family Welfare Division explained to me. “The program enables these young teenage girls to develop a safer personal-feminine identity, to find their inner voice through the use of artistic tools.”
“Otzma Tzeira is one of our most important projects,” Prof. Rivka Lazovsky, Chairperson of World WIZO added. “It embodies one of our highest goals: to empower women, starting at a young age. It’s so exciting to see the heights to which WIZO can lift these girls through art, which allows each participant to personally express herself.”
Finding their Voice
Cathy Sagie told me about Sharona (not her real name), a 14 year-old ninth grade student from Kiryat Malachi. She was a good student in elementary school. However, when she made the transition to junior high, she wanted to be in the theater track, but she was afraid the other students would mock her when she had to get up on stage and perform an audition that included a monologue and a song. Due to her fear, she gave up on her dream to study in the theater track and soon lost interest in her studies altogether. She began to distance herself from classmates and for the next two years of school, 7th and 8th grade, she did not go out with friends, she had no one to talk to at school, and she did not go to class parties. Sharona did not want her parents to interfere and refused their attempts to help her. She was all alone. For ninth grade she moved to a different class but that did not help either.
Everything changed when her school counselor told her about Otzma Tzeira. Her mother reported that once she started the program her daughter began to sing at home. For the last few years her daughter had simply stopped singing and and now, thanks to Otzma Tzeira, she found her singing voice again. “For me,” Sharona said, “Otzma Tzeira is first and foremost a group of girls who listened to me and loved me. This project has enabled me to rediscover my talents and my dreams.”
The story of Purim is also about a woman, Queen Esther, finding her voice. All the Jews were in danger of being murdered by Haman until she found the courage to act and foil his plot. Purim is a holiday that celebrates the empowerment of women.
But it wasn’t until I sat there in that auditorium, a lone man in a crowd of 200 energetic teenage girls, and watched group after group present their final projects in film, drama, photography and more did I begin to get it. As I watched their courage to get up on stage and perform I saw how all the girls in the crowd supported them. I then finally began to understand what my sisters had been describing about their for women, by women Megillah readings every Purim for as long as I can remember.
So, I did get to be a fly on the wall after all – with no girl costume required.