An Egalitarian Synagogue, on Both Sides of the Mechitza

Shira Hadasha, a congregation comprising mainly Orthodox Jews, requires both ten men and ten women for a minyan.

On any given Shabbat in Jerusalem, minyans around the city wait for ten men to begin praying. Only Shira Hadasha has to wait longer. Not because no one shows up, but because they require both ten men and ten women.

"We take upon ourselves an extra requirement," said Elie Holzer, a founder of the minyan, noting that it's not a halachic statement but a social one. Halacha does guide the minyan's decision to let women lead certain parts of services while still using a mechitza.

Outsiders, particularly those from North America, see the minyan's feminist face and categorize it with the pluralistic communities they know from home - some of which have been inspired by Shira Hadasha. But for Shira Hadasha members, these revised gender rules are only the most visible manifestation of a philosophy that transcends feminism.

"A humble attempt to be serious religious people," is how Holzer described the Shira Hadasha mission, and it starts with rethinking public prayer. If prayer requires honesty before God, ignoring elements of the community while praying can threaten the moment's integrity. Inspired, but not limited, by feminism, Shira Hadasha tries to include all "invisible" members of the community, Holzer said.

Women who have been sitting silently for years behind the mechitza fall into this category, but so do newcomers, for example. With them in mind, Shira Hadasha members are expected to host fellow congregants for Shabbat dinner. The elderly can also be overlooked, so the minyan held pre-Rosh Hashanah workshops where children and senior citizens shared their memories of the holiday.

"You suddenly get the weight of history through these people," Holzer said. By Rosh Hashanah, the connection forged between the old and young was apparent when they made eye contact during services. This is when a minyan becomes a "community of prayer," he said. Worshippers communicate not only with God, but also with each other.

This doesn't happen by accident. "If you want something alternative, you need to work on it," Holzer said. To an extent, the minyan is run democratically based on the community's needs, but the leaders also promote a proactive agenda that creates needs, he said.

This model can be a tough sell in Israel. The sole synagogue in an American town, for example, fosters a sense of community by default. But in Jerusalem, where the davening options are plentiful, the typical synagogue's role doesn't extend beyond prayer.

As a result, some Israelis can't get used to the idea of being best friends with the person they're sitting next to in shul, said Nechama Klitsner Pivko, an Israeli Shira Hadasha attendee and daughter of one of the minyan?s founders. "I think it does amazing things," she said, but added that the emphasis on community gives the minyan an American feel that can be off-putting for some Israelis. Pivko feels most comfortable at Shira Hadasha, but sometimes attends other Jerusalem minyans to take a break from the lengthy services where most prayers are sung out loud.

From the beginning, Shira Hadasha?s founders knew they were offering something different, and they weren?t sure if Jerusalemites would be interested. Some are not, and even regulars are involved to varying degrees. But with a member list capped at 450, Shira Hadasha clearly fulfills "a profound need," Holzer said.

New York and beyond

Cities around the world are home to minyans that Shira Hadasha has inspired or advised. But arguably, only one of those cities shares with Jerusalem both a high concentration of religiously-educated Jews and the kind of fluid environment that allows lay-led minyans to flourish block after block.

According to Joe Septimus of Darkhei Noam that place is New York -particularly the Upper West Side, where his minyan is located. Darkhei Noam was founded about six months after Shira Hadasha.

"The concept arose in two places at the same time," Septimus said, explaining that Shira Hadasha?s success inspired the New Yorkers who had been independently considering the same kind of minyan. Over the years the two groups have continued to share ideas about davening and community. Shira Hadasha's Holzer has twice been a scholar-in-residence at Darkhei Noam.

"What's important is the human being, the Jew, who is the kind of person who has not only done that for his own community, but can inspire another community," Septimus said of Holzer's relationship with the minyan. There's no formal network for like-minded minyans, so it's up to individuals to connect.

Of course, they can't just cut and paste from Jerusalem to New York, simply because shul-hopping is a legitimate hobby in both cities. Like Shira Hadasha, Darkhei Noam uses a mechitza while allowing women to lead parts of the service, but they define a minyan traditionally as ten men and are not interested in making a social statement, Septimus said.

This echoed Holzer's thoughts about the difference between the halachic feminist revolution in North America and Israel. It may have started in North America with women's Torah study and prayer groups, he said, but in Jerusalem these ideas became part of a wider social movement, only the most visible part of which is the doubled minyan.

Both minyans are also looking to foster slightly different types of communities. Even in the fluid environment of Upper West Side shul-hopping, Darkhei Noam is trying to build a community of families, since that's what people expect from a North American synagogue, Septimus said. In Jerusalem, however, families often split up among different minyans, so Shira Hadasha focuses more on building a community of daveners, he added.

Whatever local twists appear in these minyans worldwide, they follow the same halachic analysis found in a 2001 article by Mendel Shapiro in The Edah Journal that allows for women leading certain parts of the service including Kabbalat Shabbat, Pesukei D'Zimra, Torah reading, and aliyot.

Shira Hadasha's originators were thinking about these ideas before the article came out, said Tova Hartman, one of the founders. In fact, she had her daughter's bat mitzvah in this style before either the minyan or the article existed. When Shira Hadasha was founded in 2001, they soon became experts for other prayer groups around the world.

Separate but equal

"Come over here, I want to show you how the mechitza works," said a man at Shira Hadasha on a recent Friday night. Most mechitzas don't "work," they just divide, but the one at Shira Hadasha is appropriately dynamic.

The white, semi-sheer fabric hangs from the ceiling, reaching almost to the floor except for a shorter part that brushes the top of the service leader's table, cutting it in half. Men and women stand on their respective sides while leading, but during the Torah service the short part is pulled back, making the Torah accessible and visible to all.

For Jessica Feiwus, an American who's been living in Israel since September, it's this unique setup plus "the spirituality of the group singing together" that brings her to Shira Hadasha. She said the ruach is rivaled only by services at Ramah, the Conservative summer camp.

Most people on the minyan's official member list are from Orthodox backgrounds, according to Holzer. But the service attracts so many visitors that the profile of the congregation changes from week to week.

On this particular Friday night, after dozens of rows on both sides of the room filled up, a woman wearing a hat and long skirt presided over Kabbalat Shabbat harmonies, and then a man led Ma'ariv. Even mundane mid-service announcements - accompanied by a joint effort on both sides of the room to fully open the mechitza like a shower curtain - put Shira Hadasha's attention to equality on display.

The mobile mechitza may take the spotlight, but there were subtle hints of the minyan's larger philosophy. Before the service, Hartman greeted seemingly every other person with a hug or smile. Between typical announcements there was a call for volunteers to help families with soldiers in Gaza - not just by cooking a meal, but by helping kids with homework since details like that can be overlooked in stressful times.

"I was very impressed," said Jessica Parker, a Toronto native who was visiting Shira Hadasha for the first time. "It was just a completely different level of volunteerism being expected from the community."