It is erev Shabbat at Shira Hadasha, an “Orthodox, feminist congregation” in Jerusalem.
A traditional mechitza divides the males from the females, who are there in equal numbers. Married women have covered their hair with hats, scarvesand wigs as is customary in Orthodox congregations. Two men lay-lead the services for Mincha and Kabbalat Shabbat, as the congregation worships from an Orthodox siddur.
But then something happens that just doesn’t happen in Orthodox congregations; a woman ascends the bima and chants the Maariv service for the entire group.
Across the Atlantic, in a large gymnasium at the B’nai Jeshurun Community House in New York City’s Upper West Side, hundreds of people gather for a Shabbat morning service at Congregation Darkhei Noam. As at Shira Hadasha, women and men are divided by a mechitza, married women have covered their hair, and the liturgy is Orthodox.
But a woman leads the opening prayers and another leads the Torah service. Several women are called to the Torah for aliyot, and others chant the parsha. A woman, an educator from the Jewish Theological Seminary, delivers the d’var Torah.
Shira Hadasha and Darkhei Noam are just two examples of a growing trend in Modern Orthodox circles that allows women more active synagogue participation. These congregations are known as “partnership minyans.”
And one has just arrived in Pittsburgh.
The Pittsburgh Partnership Minyan held its first service on Friday night, April 4, at Young People’s Synagogue (YPS) in Squirrel Hill, where about 40 adults — both men and women — and a host of children joined together to welcome the Sabbath. A mechitza was brought into YPS, and the group worshipped from the Koren Orthodox siddur.
The lay-led erev Shabbat service was organized by a group of individuals from various local congregations looking for a way to allow women more active participation in services while staying within the bounds of halacha.
While a man led the Pittsburgh Partnership Minyan in the prayers for Mincha and Maariv, a woman led the service for Kabbalat Shabbat and delivered the d’var Torah.
“We try to follow halacha as it is defined in the Orthodox way, even though it may not be in the traditional way,” said Heather Vidmar-McEwen, a member of Shaare Torah Congregation and one of the organizers of the new minyan.
The group was inspired by the various partnership minyans that have been springing up in Israel and throughout the Diaspora.
“I’ve been to Shira Hadasha and Darkhei Noam,” Vidmar-McEwen said. “Some of us in the community have been talking for about one or two years about opportunities for women to have more participation in the service.”
Last December, Vidmar-McEwen attended an international conference hosted by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) in New York City. At that event, there was “a lot of discussion about partnership minyanim growing all over the country,” she said.
While partnership minyans are relatively new — Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem, founded in 2002, was among the first — they are definitely gaining traction. JOFA’s website lists 31, from Melbourne, Australia to Los Angeles.
But the majority of these minyans are located in larger cities on the East Coast of the United States. Pittsburgh is one of the first smaller Jewish communities to launch such a minyan.
Unlike Conservative egalitarian services, where women and men participate equally in leading prayer, partnership minyans have parameters defining which parts of the service can be led by women.
In most partnership minyans, women are permitted to open the Torah ark, lead the Kabbalat Shabbat service, Saturday morning’s Psukei d’Zimra prayers and get called to and read from the Torah.
Most partnership minyans do not permit women to lead the Shacharit or Musaf services, because that would be a violation of the Jewish law mandating that prayer leaders be obligated to recite those prayers.
The Pittsburgh Partnership Minyan’s first service was attended mostly by Shaare Torah members, joined by some members of Congregations Poale Zedeck and Beth Shalom as well as a few graduate students and unaffiliated Jews, according to Vidmar-McEwen.
The new minyan does not intend to become a substitute for the city’s established congregations, she said, and only plans to meet once every four to six weeks.
“We are committed for this to be an occasional thing,” she said. “All of us are committed to other shuls. That’s why we’re planning to stick with once a month or every six weeks.”
Because most of the participants are members of Shaare Torah, they informed the congregation’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, in advance about their plans to hold their service, said Vidmar-McEwen.
Although the partnership minyan movement is growing, it is not accepted by the majority of mainstream Orthodox leaders and has been rejected by the denomination’s umbrella group, the Orthodox Union.
“The consensus of the rabbis to whom the Orthodox Union turns for halachic guidance is unequivocal, that partnership minyanim are improper,” wrote OU executive vice president Rabbi Steven Weil and executive vice president emeritus Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb in an email. “It is our goal to assert this position in a way that strives to maintain the unity of the Jewish people.”
But for Vidmar-McEwen, the new minyan will offer a welcome addition to Pittsburgh’s Jewish community.
“We are doing this as a way to expand what we see as an already beautiful community in Pittsburgh,” she said. “We are trying to create a small and welcoming group focused on prayer and making this a beautiful service.”
Michael Backman, a biostatistics student at the University of Pittsburgh who attended the new minyan’s inaugural service, agreed.
“I think it is a good thing for the community because it allows the variety of prayer services available to more accurately reflect the diversity of the Jewish community,” he said.
The Pittsburgh Partnership Minyan’s next service will be held on Friday night, May 2 and is open to the community. For more information contact Vidmar-McEwen at email@example.com.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)