During Simchat Torah morning services at Orthodox synagogues, the parshah is repeated until every man in attendance gets an aliyah.
This past year, women in 50 Orthodox Union-affiliated congregations were able to choose between remaining in their seats for that time or participating in a Torah study session of their own. Two local shuls, Anshei Sfard Kehillat Torah and Congregation Beth Jehuda were among them.
The project began with a single rebbetzin seeking to make the holiday more meaningful for her congregational sisters.
“We were looking for ways to engage women in the Simchat Torah experience,” said Dr. Adina Shmidman, of Pennsylvania, “and a rebbitzen colleague had shared that she was doing this in her shul.”
Shmidman, who is also founding director of the national Orthodox Union Women’s Initiative, took the idea to her own shul in 2012, where it became a standard part of the holiday.
“In trying to look at the question of engagement on a national level,” Shmidman said, “this seemed to be an opportunity to engage women in a very natural way within the structure of the synagogue and the structure of the day.”
While there was an application process, Shmidman said, requirements for participation were flexible by intention.
“We really gave a lot of latitude to who (the teacher) was and I think that shows the breadth of Torah and the stretch of Torah, so it was really a kaleidoscope of teachers.”
It was exciting, she said, to see the variety of teachers across different congregations.
“We had shuls who had their rebbetzin, we had shuls that had local teachers, we had shuls who had women within the congregation who didn’t have an official teaching position within the community but who enjoyed and had the capacity to teach.”
Meira Lampert of Congregation Beth Jehudah on Milwaukee’s west side and Rebbetzin Jessica Kalmar of Anshe Sfard Kehillat Torah congregation in Glendale led the local study sessions.
Kalmar has been leading a Simchat Torah women’s study session at ASKT since shortly after she and her husband, Rabbi Wes Kalmar, came to Milwaukee in 2010. Women at ASKT were excited and inspired when they heard that 49 other groups were doing exactly what they were doing at that moment, she said.
Her talk was based on a class given by Rabbanit Shani Taragin of Israel.
“We talked about how Sukkot reflects G-d’s universal relationship with the people of the world, and we compared that with Pesach, which more celebrates G-d’s particular and special relationship with the Jewish people, and we talked about how Simchat Torah is this separate holiday at the end of Sukkot that returns us to our more particular relationship with G-d.”
Lampert, who grew up attending Congregation Beth Jehudah, recently returned to Milwaukee with her husband and two children after living out of state for several years. She described herself as “just a regular member.”
Two months before the holiday, an older woman in the congregation asked her if she would like to prepare a talk.
“It was an opportunity to speak with the girls and young ladies in the community, and I had a lot of flexibility with what I would want to speak about,” she said.
Lampert’s shiur, or study session, addressed staying on track in life despite challenges and obstacles. She used a Torah commentary to ground her talk and drew from her own experience.