Teen Girls Laying Tefillin: Brave Enough to Be Different

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A member of the Conservative Movement marks her bat mitzvah by reading from the Torah and laying tefillin.Credit: United Synagogue / JTA Photo Service

I remember the first time I worked with a bat mitzvah student. We had been studying for over a year, learning her Torah portion together, working on a Dvar Torah to deliver to the congregation, and planning a mitzvah project to reinforce her newfound responsibility toward all of humanity. We learned about tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries) and she was excited about the possibility of wearing these ritual objects.

She soon realized that she was in the minority. No other adolescent girl was wearing tefillin that morning, and very few chose to wear tallitot. Although the community was egalitarian and women had the same opportunities for participation in Jewish ritual as men, most of the teenage girls declined to engage in the rituals of laying tefillin and wearing tallitot. So too, this bat mitzvah girl folded up her tallit, zipped up her tefillin bag, and has yet to put them on again. Why? Because she does not want to stand alone. She wants to be “normal.”

Jewish newspapers and social media were abuzz this past week over the brave decision of two teenage girls to be the anomaly. They decided to take on the ritual of laying tefillin daily, even if this was foreign to those around them. Ronit Morris and Yael Marans, students at the SAR Modern Orthodox High School in Riverdale, N.Y., will now wear tefillin daily, according to The Forward. Debra Nussbaum Cohen recently explained in a Haaretz article that this is nothing new; SAR Academy had apparently permitted girls to wear tefillin two decades ago. Still, at this point in time, such an institutional decision is significant, so much so that it led to another well-known Modern Orthodox Jewish High School in New York, the Ramaz School,  to also announce that it too were open to girls in their school wearing tallit and tefillin if they wish.

The decisions made by these institutions recognizes the diverse spectrum of religious expression, halakhic interpretation, and commitment to Jewish ritual, even within a specific movement or denomination.

As a Conservative rabbi and Jew, and a staunch supporter of egalitarianism, I am a part of a movement in which the overwhelming majority of affiliated congregations are egalitarian. While the Conservative Movement has been egalitarian for over a generation, I worry that it has never truly embraced nor encouraged women's participation in Jewish rituals.

Under the movement’s understanding of halakha (Jewish law) women have the opportunity to participate in all aspects of Jewish rituals if they wish. It was thanks to this understanding that the Modern Orthodox institutions SAR Academy and the Ramaz School came to this conclusion. However, if the Conservative Movement truly stands for egalitarianism, it must do more than simply permit women to participate in rituals.

It must, via us - the clergy, educators, professionals, and lay leaders of the Conservative Movement - encourage it. When Conservative leaders do not take a true stand for egalitarianism - saying it is a priority of our movement and our affiliated institutions - it makes it hard to prove to the women of the movement, and young girls like the bat mitzvah student who’s tefillin remains tucked away in a drawer, that egalitarianism is a priority.

Making egalitarianism a priority is about more than giving women a choice; it must encourage and expect participation. True egalitarianism is men and women being viewed as - and feeling - equally obligated. We need institutions that encourage our b’not mitzvah to take on ritual. We need more female role models that wear kippah, tallit, and tefillin to show our young girls that this is a possibility. We need more men who understand, appreciate, preach, and teach the importance of egalitarianism in our communities. We need more leaders who don’t simply permit participation, involvement, and equality, but instead encourage it. We need more male leaders who promote gender equality in the same way our female leaders do.

I am standing up, asking, promoting, and encouraging true egalitarianism. Who is with me?

Rabbi Jesse Olitzky serves as part of the clergy team at the Jacksonville Jewish Center in Jacksonville, FL. You can follow more of his thoughts on his personal blog and on Twitter: @JMOlitzky

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