Circling Back to Simchas Torah

A few days before Simchas Torah this year, I read message after message from shuls announcing their plans for hakafos during the pandemic. I read complaints about the sacrifices we were going to have to make to keep our community safe from COVID. In many shuls, instead of “everyone” dancing with the Torah, only a few men would be able to dance and everyone else would watch from their seats. Over and over I read how the structure for these hakafos would be radically different; it wouldn’t be like Simchas Torah of years past. Only the descriptions of hakafos sounded very familiar.  

I posted the following on Facebook and Twitter:

So I’m hearing a lot of complaints about Simchas Torah restrictions this year. I just want to remind everyone that sitting/standing in place while others dance with the Torah is what Simchas Torah is for many women every year.

I was overwhelmed with the response. I did not expect this post to resonate so much or to go so far. For many men and women, this articulated something they had been thinking and feeling as well. On the other hand, many commenters seem to be reading their own views into my words. So I would like to make a few points of clarification and use this opportunity to discuss some of the points raised in the comments about the Simchas Torah experience:

  1. I was not posting to complain. I was posting to point out something ironic. And potentially open a productive conversation. 
  1. The reaction to the post demonstrates that many people, both men and women, do not connect to hakafos as they have been happening. Many women expressed feeling disconnected to hakafos because they felt they had no place in it. I was surprised to see how many men said they dread the hours of dancing as well. Coronavirus lockdown has caused a lot of communal introspection. Perhaps it can lead to a conversation on how to make Simchas Torah more engaging across the board.
  1. A lot of commentators had helpful thoughts about what has worked or could work in their communities. Some suggestions I’ve seen: shiur during hakafos; peer learning during hakafos; create a space for women to dance (I’m not engaging in the question of women dancing with the Torah — that’s not my community); have a communal seudah in shul Simchas Torah night; keep hakafos the same, just make them shorter. There are so many options that fit within the parameters of halacha.
  1. An overarching concern in many hakafos situations is disengagement and boredom. Adults are bored. Kids are bored. The dancing is fun for a while. But then the men drop off, the women get tired of watching and the whole thing becomes a Machsom L’fi nightmare. Kids wander off doing who knows what. The Yom Tov seudah, which is an actual mitzvah (hakafos is a minhag), is pushed aside. The inspirational goals of Simchas Torah are not reached.
Image: Asaf Amir – Norma productions (אסף אמיר – נורמה הפקות); Rama Burshtein’s ‘Fill the Void.’
  1. This year, my family ended up going to hakakfos at a backyard minyan. Boys danced with their fathers and other men in their family. The women and girls who wanted to dance found a spot on the other side of the house. Each hakakfah consisted of one song sung three or four times. Only 10 minutes (if even) between “Moshe Emes” throws. There was some time to shmooze and no booze. At the point when I could see people were starting to lose steam and get bored, it was already the 7th hakafa. Seu Shearim Rosheichem! We were home by 9 p.m. We ate a proper seudah with all of the kids present. We all got a good night sleep and had energy for Simchas Torah day. Amazing!
  1. All of this refers to shuls with singles and families, and especially with lots of young kids, not to yeshivos. I grew up spending Simchas Torah in a yeshiva. Hakafos went to 2 a.m. It was awesome. But that doesn’t work for most families.
  2. There are some holidays where men have a more visible and active part than women. Simchas Torah is one of those. Many women find this challenging and a little sensitivity can go a long way. Messages from shuls bemoaning how sad and radically different hakafos will be this year, when they are actually describing women’s experiences every year, are not helpful. While certainly unintentional, these kinds of statements can lead women to feel like they are insignificant or not a real part of the community. These feelings of disenfranchisement can easily be avoided with a little thought about the tone and language of our messages.
  3. To those men complaining about how awful it was to just watch hakafos and not dance or be an active part of things, please start a conversation on how your shul could make hakafos more inspirational for girls and women. Please don’t make a bracha “Shelo Asani Isha” and move on. Rather, let this be an eye-opening experience. This reminds me of an article in a Jewish magazine where the author acknowledged the challenges women face at events; something that he only realized after he attended an event in the women’s section and couldn’t see or hear. “I couldn’t handle it for an hour,” he admitted, “yet for them [women] it’s a way of life.
  4. For all men and women, whether you love or dread hakafos, please let this be an opportunity to open a conversation about getting all members of the community more engaged.
  1. Growing up, Simchas Torah was my favorite Yom Tov. I loved the energy. I loved watching the men dance. I loved all the shtick. I loved dancing with the women. I loved the midnight snacks. I loved hanging out with my friends until all hours. For many, I am sure that the joy of dancing with the Torah until the wee hours of the morning is a high point of their year. I would certainly not advocate taking that away from those who enjoy and gain inspiration from it. While beautiful for many people, this type of hakafos presents a logistical challenge for others. And some simply don’t connect or gain inspiration from this.  

The past few months have been a massive challenge to our community and to the world. They have also been a testament to our community’s resilience and its ability to adapt to protect our community’s health and well-being. We have reestablished what is important in our lives. We have prioritized values. We have found new ways to create meaningful connections with Hashem and with each other. There is a lot of talk about when we can go back to how things were. But there is a famous mashal (parable) about how life is like a down escalator. If you’re staying in place, you’re actually going down. So instead of thinking about how to go back to the way things were, let’s think about how we can go forward to an even stronger future. 

About the Author
Dr. Leslie Ginsparg Klein is a writer and speaker. She received her Ph.D. from New York University, where she researched the history of Orthodox girls’ education in America and the Bais Yaakov Movement. She is an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship and a recipient of the 2009 New York Jewish Week’s “36 Under 36” award. Dr. Klein is also the founder and director of Girls’ Night On, a not-for-profit organization that promotes Jewish women in music and the arts.
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