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Women can count in minyans, lead services at Beth Israel
May 25th, 2001
After a long process of study and reflection, Congregation Beth Israel will begin counting women to make a minyan (prayer quorum of ten Jews, men in all Orthodox and some Conservative synagogues). Moreover, as of July 1, the Conservative synagogue will begin allowing women to lead services.
This decision, issued by spiritual leader Rabbi Paul Kerbel at a meeting of the congregation on May 17, is the last step in an long evolution toward complete gender egalitarianism at Beth Israel.
According to Kerbel, this evolution began with women being allowed to come on the bimah, then with girls having Sabbath morning bat mitzvah ceremonies. Several years ago, women were allowed to have an aliyah to the Torah and to read the Torah during services.
Kerbel said that synagogue officials told him when they hired him about two years ago that full gender egalitarianism in the services “was an issue of concern to the synagogue” that he should address.
About 90 percent of the synagogue’s members approved the decision, Kerbel added. They include long-time member Nancy Ettenheim, who said she is planning on attending a minyan at least once a week.
“I am an adult and want to be treated as an adult with all the rights and obligations of an adult,” Ettenheim said. Moreover, there are “a lot of women [members] for whom this is an important issue that’s been hanging out there for years” and who feel “a sense of resolution,” she said.
While women will be able to lead services beginning this summer, few are presently trained to do so at Beth Israel. Kerbel said it “will take some time to train people” and that the synagogue will probably offer a class next year.
Dr. Robert Hirschman, the synagogue’s recording secretary and a long-time member, called Kerbel’s ruling “an excellent decision.... It is right for my family and it communicates a good message for our children and future generations: that we take Jewish law very seriously, but we want people to be equally obligated and involved and that law will change gradually and thoughtfully to meet the needs of the time and of the Jewish people.”
As Beth Israel’s current president, Judy Margolis, said in a statement, the synagogue “made this change after a year of study and dialogue,” making sure that it “is within the halachic guidelines of Conservative Judaism.”
Kerbel explained that the synagogue brought in three rabbis to speak on the subject: Rabbi Joel Roth, former dean of the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary; Rabbi Kassel Abelson, chair of the Conservative movement’s law committee; and Rabbi Samuel Fraint, spiritual leader of Moriah Congregation in Chicago.
Roth, Kerbel said, outlined all the halachic issues as the Conservative movement views them; Abelson argued the case for gender egalitarianism in synagogue services; and Fraint argued the case against it.
The synagogue’s ritual committee, which Kerbel said has “about a dozen” members, had meetings to discuss and study the subject. On April 16, the committee had an open meeting for congregants to express their views. Kerbel said that of the about 60 people who attended, about 20 spoke, of whom only two opposed the idea of greater gender egalitarianism.
After one more study meeting, the ritual committee met on April 30 to see if it wanted to make a recommendation. (Kerbel emphasized that Beth Israel’s ritual committee is an advisory group and the rabbi makes the decisions about Jewish law in the synagogue.) It did not make a recommendation.
Kerbel said that when he read his eight-page halachic decision to about 80 congregants on May 17, “I got applause after I spoke and many complimented me on what I said and how.”
Rick Strait, who is slated to become synagogue president at its June 11 annual meeting, said he thought the decision was “the right thing to do and the right time to do it.... I think it will lead to increased observance by members and help attract members to Beth Israel.”
But some members do not approve or feel uncomfortable. Jay Miller, who is slated to become synagogue vice president, said, “I am not comfortable davening in a minyan where there are not ten men.” Miller said he also “would feel uncomfortable with a woman leading services,” although he added he has “nothing against” the idea of a woman rabbi.
“This is not a women’s rights or equality issue,” Miller said. “It’s not a right, it’s an obligation.... You have to be able to justify it halachically [and] get around the Talmud passage that says women are excused from positive and time-bound obligations” like participating in certain prayer services and ritual actions.
Jean Saltzman, 71 and a member of Beth Israel since 1978, said she grew up in Orthodox synagogues. She and her husband, Allen, joined Beth Israel primarily so they could sit together during services, but they liked Beth Israel’s initially more traditional service.
She feels the changes are “not right for me. Orthodoxy is still steeped in me.” Yet she feels “close to the shul and I love the people there. I’m in a quandary.”
Another male synagogue member, who didn’t want to be identified, said that in Judaism “women have duties to perform which are not the same as men’s.” He added that he probably wouldn’t attend the weekday minyans if women would be counted in them.
Kerbel and others pointed out that the new policy will try to be sensitive to those who disagree. Women who do not want to be counted in a minyan will not be; and there may be a second minyan at times if enough people want it.
Moreover, Kerbel wrote in the text of his decision that at minyans for mourners, “I will defer to the decision and sensitivities of the family to determine whether to count women in the minyan or not” (italics his).
But Kerbel said in both his decision and in an interview that this decision “means very little if both men and women don’t take seriously the obligation to pray and make a minyan. That’s my main message.”