NEW YORK — Every Monday and Thursday, the midweek Torah-reading days, male students at Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy High School parade the scroll around their side of the sanctuary. When he reaches the back of the chapel, the boy carrying the Torah pauses briefly to allow the girls crowding around the partition separating them from their male classmates to touch the sacred scroll with their prayer book or fingertips.
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That’s no longer enough for two female students at the modern Orthodox day school in Rockville, Maryland, which has 740 students.
After the administration rejected their request that girls be allowed to walk the Torah through their section — the custom in a small but growing number of modern Orthodox congregations — Lea Herzfeld and Yakira Zimand have taken their campaign public, through a petition on Change.org. So have those who oppose changing the school’s policy.
“We just felt like we were sitting in davening and didn’t have a meaningful experience. We don’t participate with anything with the Torah,” said Herzfeld, using a Yiddish term for prayer. A 16-year-old junior, she is the eldest child of prominent Washington modern Orthodox Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld.
“We go to the back of the room whenever the Torah is being passed around and kiss it from a tiny spot behind the mehitzah,” Herzfeld told Haaretz, referring to the partition between the women’s and men’s sections.
“It feels really uncomfortable to have a ton of girls try and squish into that really small spot to have any contact with the Torah,” said Zimand, 17 and a senior.
At Herzfeld’s family synagogue, Ohev Sholom: The National Synagogue, women are permitted to carry the Torah around their section of the sanctuary. The synagogue also has a maharat, or clergywoman, who teaches and counsels congregants.
But that is not the norm in modern Orthodox synagogues. Berman Academy headmaster Joshua Levisohn estimates that just 20 percent of congregations in the Washington area allow the Torah to be carried around the women’s section.
The executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, agrees that the while the practice is “still not normative,” it is increasingly being adopted by modern Orthodox synagogues, camps and schools.
“The precedent was set decades ago, but some communities are lagging behind in this fairly simple way to engage the entire community,” she told Haaretz. “It’s happening increasingly more because there is zero halakhic [Jewish legal] issue” with it.
“I’m not sure why it should be problematic to give women a moment with the sefer Torah, our holiest object. At shuls the biggest problem isn’t that women are taking over” from men, Weiss-Greenberg said. “It’s that women aren’t showing up” because they feel so alienated from the communal worship experience, she said.
“I am strongly against using progressive approaches within discussions that determine Orthodox policies and practices,” Ori Bernstein, the 17-year-old senior at Berman who started the Change.org counterpetition, told Haaretz in a Facebook message. “I believe that Orthodoxy holds highly the opinions and literature of our past leaders, as does our school — those advocating for this policy change are, in my opinion, showing little regard to Orthodox values in their arguments, and little respect to the traditions we have in place,” he wrote.
Herzfeld and Zimand came to Levisohn with their request in November. He promised to look into it and consulted with the school’s religious authority, Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz. Breitowitz, a senior lecturer at Jerusalem’s Ohr Somayach yeshiva, ruled that while Jewish law does not prohibit females from carrying a Torah scroll, it should be done only in a community that is comfortable with the practice.
Levisohn and the principal then told the girls there was not enough support in the school to alter the policy.
“We certainly are proud of these girls for advocating for themselves, and not something we think of as a negative at all,” Levisohn told Haaretz. “But it’s not always something we can do. We need to decide if this is a change for our community. In this particular case there’s no reason to forbid it as a technical matter but that doesn’t mean it’s something we want to adopt.”
Girls being permitted to kiss or touch the Torah is a custom adopted since Levisohn began at Berman a decade ago, he said, and the change was not at all controversial.
But “there’s a big difference between kissing the Torah and having it go around the women’s section,” he said, adding that allowing it to be walked through the women’s section “narrows the separation between men and women in davening.”
Bernstein said he is “neutral” on girls kissing the Torah but opposes going beyond that “because of this slippery slope, of using unorthodox methods for change in Orthodox practices.”
Lea’s rabbi father, Shmuel Herzfeld, told Haaretz that “[a]s a parent, I’m very proud of my daughter. As the rabbi of a shul in town I’m also proud of the way students are sharing their positions in a respectful and thoughtful manner.” Six of his seven children are enrolled at Berman. (The seventh is too young.) “It’s inspiring to see.”
By Wednesday Herzfeld’s and Zimand’s petition had 380 signatures. Bernstein’s had 93.
But no matter how many signatures the girls’ petition collects, it won’t shift the policy at Berman. Though it was Levisohn who first suggested to the girls that they collect names to prove that there’s widespread interest in a policy change, now he says that isn’t relevant.
They “are public petitions,” said Levisohn. They are “dealing with this issue as a matter internal to the school community. It would be inappropriate for us to base a decision like this on an open public petition.”
“If we felt there was a significant number of people interested in going in this direction as a community it would make sense to do that,” Levisohn told Haaretz. “But for one or two kids, to make a change for the entire community is not the direction we want to go.”
Unlike at two leading modern Orthodox high schools in New York, Ramaz and SAR, which two years ago were forced to confront the question of whether girls may wear tefillin, that question has not arisen at Berman.
The Torah being carried around the girls’ side “was the first of the really difficult issues” to come up, Levisohn said.
But running a modern Orthodox day school “feels like more of a balancing act then it used to,” he said. “We are trying to hold together a modern Orthodox community, but as those practices diverge I suspect this is not at all the last of these issues we’ll have to deal with.”