Feminism and Mixed Minyans at Shira Hadasha Synagogue, Jerusalem

At Shira Hadasha, services that require a minyan only start when 10 men and 10 women are present.

Jacob Solomon

The Shira Hadasha (“a new song) group in Jerusalem is less a synagogue, perhaps, than a breakthrough movement within Orthodox Judaism. The congregation, which is independent of any organization or foundation, is democratically run without an official rabbi, instead having a Halacha Committee composed of several ordained and learned lay members - and feminism has its place.

Founded in 2002 by a group of local residents, Shira Hadasha uses the upstairs hall of the Israel Cultural Center at 12 Emek Refaim Street for services.

During the week, the building houses community and children's activities, but on the Sabbath and festivals, the mechitza descends from metallic ceiling suspenders to a gender-segregated, distinctive kehilla  (congregation), whose declared framework is halacha, tefilla, and - feminism.  

A quick look round at the well-attended Shabbat morning service suggests a fairly balanced cross-section of the academic and professional population that has made that part of Jerusalem its home. But the establishment of Shira Hadasha, in 2002, was not designed to build just as another neighborhood synagogue. Its purpose is to enable women to participate in the leadership and organization of orthodox synagogue services, to the maximum degree allowed by the halacha.

Thus the parts of the service that require a minyan start only when 20 people are present: 10 males (as required by the halacha) and 10 females (in line with the objectives of Shira Hadasha).

Some twenty Orthodox places of worship worldwide follow similar lines to Shira Hadasha. They face considerable opposition, even within modern Orthodoxy.

At Shira Hadasha, who actually leads the service depends on which stage the service is at. Both genders are eligible, as long as it is not a core area that is “obligatory for men, but non-mandatory for women”. Once it is, it’s men only. This is based on the Talmudic principle that a person may only represent the entire congregation in prayer where that person himself has the halachic obligation to recite that prayer. (The congregation’s answering Amen connects the leader’s prayer to the congregation.) That excludes males under thirteen and females of all ages from relevant sections.

This however makes women eligible to lead Friday night services, and on Shabbat morning, the preliminary psalms - the prayers connected with taking out and returning the Torah scrolls to the Ark, and the Torah reading itself.

There is no formal choral support – it isn’t needed. Shira Hadasha’s wide musical repertoire is rendered in spontaneous congregational four-part harmony. That gives you the sense of being in the core of the choir rather than just listening or singing along with it. As the congregation website puts it: “Our singing in tefilla is not only about aesthetics, form, or performance, but rather it is our primary religious medium of avodah she-ba-lev (service of the heart)”.

Sabbath services at Shira Hadasha begin at around sundown in the evening and at 8:30 am in the morning. Shira Hadasha is less than five minutes walk from Liberty Bell Park and the Jerusalem First Station.