Orthodox women prayer group celebrate 20 years

By John Jeffay, June 24, 2010
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A Pioneering project to enhance the role of Orthodox women in synagogue life is celebrating its 20th anniversary at the Yeshurun shul in south Manchester.

With its regular Torah readings, the all-female tefillah (prayer) group has been the focus of much interest and some controversy.

But organisers of the Women in Judaism group are keen that this does not overshadow their educational and cultural programme, or their role in shul management.

WiJ was born in a mood of great optimism at a time when Jonathan Sacks, then the Chief Rabbi elect, was expressing willingness to explore ways for women to play a bigger part in their synagogues.

‘This group has enriched communal life here’

Although much of what WiJ does is replicated in part in shuls across the country, the Yeshurun group claims no other congregation offers the same breadth of women's activities.

"The women's tefillah group shouldn't be taken as a barometer of our success," says current chairman Irene Naftalin. "We are involved in many, many other activities."

Other than warden, all Yeshurun executive positions are now open to women and there is no longer a women's quota for the shul council.

Women have their own lulav and etrog on Succot, their own Simchat Torah and Shavuot celebrations, Yom Kippur learning sessions, Megillah readings on Purim and study days. Girls can now celebrate their batmitzvah on Shabbat.

The shul's minister, Rabbi Chaim Kanterowitz, welcomes their commitment, pointing out: "This group has always worked within the guidelines of halachah and have, all in all, enriched our communal life.

"They have been at the forefront of the effort to make tefillah and Torah learning more meaningful and relevant to women."

Five women have learned to leyn for the women's tefillah group - they sing by choice from a Chumash rather than a Sefer Torah.

Initially WiJ meetings were tolerated by the Yeshurun executive, which insisted they were held in homes rather than in the shul building. But there has been a gradual thawing and in 2007 a senior dayan at Manchester Beth Din sanctioned women's "explanatory services" in the shul.

"The shul originally said we'd have to meet in people's homes but should come back for kiddush - and they said no to more than three meetings a year," Mrs Naftalin recalled.

"These are women who wanted to explore the spiritual side of Judaism but were also willing to embrace change within the Orthodox framework. The thing that upset most people was women leyning. But it's not something I need to defend. The Chief Rabbi permits it and so do other rabbonim."

    Last updated: 11:49am, June 24 2010