NEW YORK – Teenager Alexandra Schwartz had not heard of the Women of the Wall group when her mother got an email from Moving Traditions, the organization sponsoring the Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! group in which the 13-year-old participates, announcing a slogan contest. Schwartz came up with a winning motto: Eq-wall-ity.
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The Rosh Hodesh group at Stamford, CT’s Sinai Temple, in which Schwartz has participated since last year, is one of more than 340 Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! groups across North America, in which some 3,500 girls between the ages of 11 and 18 participate.
As their prize for winning Moving Traditions’ “One Moon, One Wall, One People” contest, the organization is flying Schwartz and the two other successful entrants and their mothers to Israel. They will pray with Women of the Wall on January 2 – Rosh Hodesh Shevat.
“I’ve never been to Israel before, so it’s going to be a totally new experience for me. I’m pretty excited,” Schwartz said. It will also be the first trip to Israel for her mother, Dr. Elizabeth Ortiz-Schwartz, a psychiatrist who said she also didn’t know much about Women of the Wall before the contest, but that it spurred both to learn more. Now, she says, “I’m kind of upset that equality at the Wall is still a big issue” that has not yet been resolved.
Lucy Sattler, 15, has been in a Rosh Hodesh group at Beth Emet: The Free Synagogue, in Evanston, IL, for the past four years. “I had always known Women of the Wall was a really big issue, but never had a direct connection with what was going on,” said Sattler, who is a sophomore at her local public high school and has never been to Israel. “This contest got me motivated to learn more,” she said. “It was really eye-opening, everything that I read. I’ve always thought of Jews being kind of reliant on each other, really together as a group. The thing that surprised me the most was seeing Jews disagree with themselves, seeing women who were Jews being hurt by other Jews. In Israel, there’s a lot of conflict with other religions, other countries. I was surprised to see that we ourselves were adding to the conflict.”
Inspiration for her winning slogan, “Proud to pray like a girl,” came from the shirts her tennis team wore last year, which said “Proud to play like a girl.”
When Jeffrey Schwarz approached Moving Traditions offering to underwrite a project for participants in Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! and the organization’s counterpart group for boys, Shevet Achim: The Brotherhood, his goal was to raise awareness of Women of the Wall among the teenagers, he said in an interview. “I felt like for sure the American-Jewish community needed to stand up and be heard on this issue.”
Schwarz, who lives on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, is the father of a college-age daughter, cofounder of the Metropolitan Capital hedge fund and a former treasurer of Moving Traditions. “I thought that the teens and tweens in Rosh Hodesh and Shevet Achim ought to be made aware of the issue in case they otherwise weren’t. Collectively, the liberal Jewish world isn’t doing a good enough job of raising this as an issue,” Schwarz said.
Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman told Haaretz that having a trip to Israel as the prize for a Jewish contest is “the way it should be done. And to have the girls be with us on Rosh Hodesh is just wonderful. We’ll be celebrating with them.”
The contest received 138 submissions from both girls and boys. “We’ve been supporting Women of the Wall by joining them at the Wall for years,” said Deborah Meyer, Moving Traditions’ executive director. The goal of the contest was “to invite teen girls and teen boys to stand up with us pushing forward this important struggle, as well as providing an opportunity for Jewish teens to claim their own commitment to Jewish life and to gender equity.”
Its impact has reached beyond the teens even before they depart for Jerusalem. Sattler helps out in a 1st grade classroom at her synagogue’s Hebrew school and the teacher there wanted her to read the poem she wrote as her entry with the young students.
“They really liked it and said ‘Oh Lucy, read it again, read it again!’” Sattler recalled. “I talked to them about how they would feel if someone told them they weren’t allowed to do the same thing as someone else. A lot of them were really excited and said ‘Lucy’s going to make a difference!’ They thought I was going to take this head on. They wrote little notes that they want me to put in the Wall. One of the little girls’ parents told me her daughter came home and said ‘Did you know that women aren’t allowed to sing at the Western Wall?’ The little girl was furious.”