I’ve always told others never to judge a new synagogue by High Holidays, because of the crowds, the formality and organized chaos. But that’s exactly what I did. Erev Rosh Hashanah my husband and I tentatively walked into Kehillat Keshet in our new neighborhood of Katamonim. As he walked over to his side of the mechitza, I took a seat where I knew we would have eye contact through the thin curtain that didn’t quite fit the frame surrounding it, adding another way we could see each other. Neither of us knew anyone there, except for a distant cousin & his family (our next door neighbors) whom we met the month before.
We arrived before Services began yet within minutes about 125 people gathered on each side of the mechitza. (No one told either of us that we were sitting in their seats – a common yet sad occurrence for newbies at shul!). Services were about to begin so I looked through my brand new Mahzor to find the exact pages – another new beginning. And then it happened. As I was looking for the exact page, I heard a beautiful woman’s voice sing part of the Minha service. What? I looked up in shock yet no one else was surprised. A man then continued through the rest of Minha, began the Rosh Hashanah service with various women chanting solo, either standing next to him (!) or standing from their seats. My husband’s eyes and mine locked as if to say – What’s happening here?
For the rest of the evening the davening was amazing. If this is an Orthodox minyan, how is it possible that women seem to be equally leading various parts of the Service? Over the next 2 days I felt the special power of hearing a woman’s voice stir the congregation into song and meditation. One particular moment was when a women sang a specific piyut (poem) with a Morrocan melody. In my experience of other Egal/Ortho services, the women involved seemed to be Ashkenazi women like me. But now adding this beautiful Sephardic voice heightened the meaning. During the delicious Kiddush break on RH 1 I had to find out how and when this Kehillah was formed so I quickly started asking. It seems the majority of this synagogue grew up in traditional Orthodox settings, attended Orthodox schools and youth groups, went into the Army in Orthodox units or spent their Sherut Leumi years with other Orthodox girls. So where and when did their views on women’s participation change? I’m still gathering this information as I ask more people each week. What clicked, when and why?
Partnership Minyan – I’ve heard the term but never fully understood it until I experienced its meaning at Kehillat Keshet this year. Men and women are full partners in creating and developing this sacred community.
Erev Yom Kippur – Kol Nidre is recited 3 times. At Keshet the 1st and 3rd were recited by a man and the 2nd was recited by a woman standing next to him. In my entire life I’ve never heard a women lead Kol Nidre – I was stunned by the duality of both voices. My husband and I are clearly one of the older people at Keshet and that brought attention, so many young people (30’s & 40’s) wanted to know who we are, why we were there, did we enjoy the davening, will we return?
As Torahs were taken out of the Aron HaKodesh and paraded through the congregation, it was sometimes women who took out the Torahs and gave them to the men. Women carried the Torahs through the Women’s Section and handed them to the men to return the Torahs to the Ark.. Women and men read from the Torah, women and men had Aliyot and chanted the Haftorah,
There were 4 Gabbaim (leaders who make sure services run smoothly, give out honors, etc) – 2 women and 2 men. And it was through these 4 indivduals that I saw a deep respect for each other and here is where the Partnership meaning is found. In some liberal Orthodox minyanim, I have seen well-intentioned men who allow women to participate. Yet at Keshet it was not women taking or men giving, rather it is truly a Partnership. There was a small, perceptable nuance of mutual respect between these 4 people, all who had many honors to give out, each weighed in when decisions had to be made as to which of the 100’s of piyutim could be recited or saved for the following day.
Second Day Rosh Hashanah one of the women Gabbaim offered me a part to recite, but I declined feeling that I wanted to feel more comfortable before standing before the entire congregation. Yet when she offered me an Aliyah on Shabbat Chol Hamoed of Sukkot, I eargerly accepted although I was extremely nervous, despite the fact that for 2 decades I taught the chanting of these blessings to hundreds of students. After my Aliyah when she blessed me with a Misheberach prayer, I heard my name linked with my parents of blessed memory, I thought how they could never imagine my standing there at that moment but I know they would be shocked yet proud.
Simchat Torah was another unqiue experience both at night and the next moring. Women had our own Hakafot with Torahs and often it was the women who lead the singing that the men followed. The women kept suggesting songs so that each of the 7 Hakafot took 45 minutes each! I’ve never been to such a long service but it was beautiful.
We are living through historic times in the evolution of women paricipating in Orthodox services with men as full and engaged partners. There are 100’s of children in Kehillat Keshet and for them their shul is the norm. A guest to our Sukkah told me that we are living in the “Southern Bubble of Jerusalem,” meaning that it’s acceptable and possible to find new forms of davening here. This is a quiet yet determined revolution that I’m excited to be part of. Kein Yehi Ratzon – Let It Be So!