Women have been empowering themselves within the traditional Orthodox community in recent years by organising women-only Kabbalat Shabbat services, Purim megillah readings, and by bringing the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance to the UK. Much of this was done to fill a gap in what was provided in United Synagogue circles.
Against this backdrop, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has upped his game and set up both the ma’ayanot programme — which is training 10 exceptional women from across the community to be “higher level educators” — and by organising the inaugural Neshama festival last Saturday night.
Being there felt very special — there was a real buzz about more than 600 women coming together to “experience Torah” through arts, music, dance and textual study.
The sessions and content I took part in were refreshing and authentic. There were no token mentions of how long to put the kugel on the hot plate for on Shabbat, or discussions on whether a woman can say kiddush if her husband has recited it already.
Instead there was a real focus on learning texts and sharing inspiration.
Much like the Limmud festival, there was a choice of sessions across arts and culture. Unlike Limmud, the presenters were all Orthodox women. Did I miss or even notice that men weren’t there? To be honest, no.
Valerie Mirvis’s opening speech was motivating and engaging — she spoke with emotion and delight about being part of this new initiative.
A musical havdalah led by Freda Kaplan, and backed by the all-female band Nafshash made up of a diverse range of women, prompted around 65 people to break into Israeli dancing.
I felt privileged to hear Dr Tovah Lichtenstein describe her experiences of bringing up her sons and daughters with equal levels of Torah and secular education.
What really struck me was that she spoke not as the daughter of the late Rabbi Soloveitchik — the seminal modern Orthodox rabbi and philosopher — nor as the wife of the late Rabbi Lichtenstein (head of Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush), but in her own capacity as a social worker.
Her talk was filled with a deep understanding and love of Judaism through practice.
I was equally impressed by the level of teaching and thought that had gone into a trilogy of ma’ayanot talking about aspects of Shabbat. Abi Kurzer, Lisa Levene and Shoshana Landau gave their insights on aspects of the synagogue Shabbat services.
The attendees were largely 40-to-60-year-old and frum. The vast majority of people I saw were in skirts and around half covered their hair. But the festival was open to everyone and the atmosphere and ethos gave no suggestion of a hidden agenda.
The food was great — snack pots everywhere and even some desserts before the finale concert — and the socialising was amazing, but what hit me most was this event felt like the long-awaited start of an effort to empower and educate women by women at a serious and intellectual level. It was a meaningful engagement from both the US and Chief Rabbi’s Office.
I look forward to following what these mayanot do next — they are planning learning circles and will speak at communal events — and to attending the next Neshama conference.
Amanda Lee is a cyber security consultant and former Limmud trustee who participated in the Gamechangers initiative for future community leaders