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Orthodox Women’s Groups Adapt to Pandemic Restrictions—and Thrive

Online offerings have driven up attendance for women’s religious services and Torah-learning sessions

Nomi Kaltmann
November 18, 2020
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

Melbourne, Australia, had endured nearly 16 weeks under one of the harshest lockdowns in the world, in which all nonessential businesses were shuttered and gatherings were banned in order to suppress the community transmission of COVID-19. As part of this lockdown, synagogues had been closed.

Yet with the number of coronavirus cases declining rapidly in Melbourne, some of the lockdown restrictions ended last month, two days before Simchat Torah.

The members of the Women’s Orthodox Tefillah in Victoria, who hadn’t been allowed to attend synagogue in person since February 2020, prepared to meet once again at Beit Aharon, a small synagogue in Melbourne.

All the women had arrived a few minutes early to have their temperatures taken and make sure their names were on the list of attendees, knowing that the Australian contact-tracing requirements for admission to any premises could take time, and the regulations for faith gatherings limited services to just under an hour.

Under the newly relaxed regulations, the women could gather in pods of five—plus a faith leader—to hold an outdoor prayer service with 4 square meters of space provided for each attendant. They had to preregister and provide their identification details, which were double checked at a security booth before entry. The synagogue grounds were big enough to house two outdoor pods with outdoor seating, along with a dedicated chazzanit and gabbait.

Uncharacteristically for the group, everyone was running on time, even a little early, and the service was efficient and completed within the allotted hour.

It was an unusual situation, but not the first obstacle this group has faced since its founding in 2017. The group had to work with different synagogues, rabbis, and community presidents to find spaces that would be happy to accommodate them to run Mincha services with a Torah. “When coronavirus hit, we already had experience innovating to make things work, no matter the circumstances that we had to deal with,” said Elise Loterman, president of the Women’s Orthodox Tefillah Group in Victoria, “so COVID-19 was another element to adapt into our group practices so that we could continue to function and offer women meaningful spiritual interactions and experiences.”

The women in Melbourne are not alone. Since the pandemic began, women’s Orthodox prayer groups and Torah-learning opportunities for women around the world have exploded due to the myriad options available online. Instead of being stunted by the challenges and limitations due to the pandemic, women’s Orthodox groups have used their creativity and resilience to immediately plan for online learning and prayer opportunities for women online.

Orthodox women’s prayer groups are made up of women who want to increase their participation and immersion in communal prayer, while remaining within the Halachic boundaries of the Orthodox community. These women-only groups meet regularly for women-led services to create meaningful spiritual opportunities. Some groups use Torahs to conduct Mincha or Torah reading, while others gather together to sing and pray. Most of these women attend specific women-led services in addition to standard Orthodox services, where they do not often have the opportunity to directly engage with ritual objects and run services with a Torah.

The first Orthodox women’s prayer group was formed in the 1960s at the Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York with the support of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. The popularity of these groups soon spread and they have existed in various forms in many locations around the globe since then.

Historically, women’s prayer groups and women-led events in Orthodox settings have had to work creatively and efficiently around inhospitable conditions to run meaningful and successful gatherings. Not all synagogues and rabbis are open to women-only services, for instance, and might not allow women to use ritual objects such as Torahs or utilize synagogue space. Many women involved in these groups are, therefore, used to being creative and adaptable when it comes to operating their services.

“When running an Orthodox women’s prayer group,” said Loterman, “you then need to think about being adaptable and how to take the goals and aspirations of the group and come to an agreement with the synagogue or rabbi you are working with and have conversations that find mutually beneficial solutions.” For example, while many synagogues will happily provide women a space to congregate, they will not permit them to use a Torah. Other times, while a privately owned Torah may be available for use in a private home, some women reject this offer as they would prefer to run services in a synagogue where they feel that they should be welcome to practice their Judaism and not be prevented from using communal spaces.

During the early days of the pandemic, prayer groups that provided spiritual outlets for religious women around the world were some of the first to adapt—by hosting online Purim events—and continued operating near seamlessly with high attendance, despite many traditional synagogues and community organizations being slow to adapt and react.

This is because women’s prayer groups have often had to fight for their right to exist within the Orthodox framework, with many facing historical opposition to their movement. Some rabbis criticize these groups by accusing them of copying the feminist movement and other Orthodox rabbis have argued that these women’s groups are antithetical to Halacha.

However, since the birth of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance in 1998, the movement for women’s prayer groups and ritual inclusion has rapidly grown, despite the opposition. Today JOFA has a strong following in countries that include Israel, France, and South Africa; in Australia, where I’m the inaugural chapter president, our organization was due to launch in 2020, though it has been delayed by COVID-19.

During the pandemic, women’s Orthodox prayer groups have adapted quickly to online programming and been very successful in attracting large numbers of women to participate in their programs and events. More women than ever before are logging on to online programs, with options from across the world being more accessible than ever.

JOFA’s executive director, Daphne Lazar Price, thinks that the expansion of women’s spiritual online programs during the pandemic was a natural outgrowth and a way to adapt to the needs of the time: “JOFA had already been conducting online programming prior to the pandemic, and had an active Zoom account, so the mechanisms to conduct effective programs were already in place.”

An unexpected benefit to pandemic worship, most of which takes place online, is that women don’t have to secure child care to attend. This eliminates one of the largest barriers to entry for religious women. This has led to all-time high attendance rates at online events, and has also meant that some women are attending prayer groups for the first time.

“More women could come to our programs because factors such as needing child care, racing to work, or doing the morning car pool didn’t apply,” said Lazar Price. “As everyone was at home, for the first time women were more free to join in on Zoom.”

This phenomenon of women suddenly having more freedom to access spiritual programs and prayer services was not just limited to Orthodox women in the United States during the pandemic.

Around the world, women suddenly found that eliminating the need for child care in order for them to attend synagogue services, which could be difficult to secure in the pre-COVID days, opened up greater opportunities to participate.

Rebbetzin Hadassah Fromson from the Golders Green Synagogue in London suddenly found herself in the middle of the pandemic with an unexpected number of women reaching out and wanting to connect to enlightening Jewish content. With most British synagogues closed, the decision was made to livestream monthly women-led Hallel services for Rosh Chodesh. The first musical Hallel service, running for just under half an hour, attracted hundreds of viewers on the livestream, with many people continuing to view the recording after the fact. The number of women that attended convinced Fromson that this service should continue each month during the pandemic. Attendance has topped 700 at some of these services.

“Many women contacted us to let them know that they had really enjoyed the music and found the service uplifting,” said Fromson. “As it was online, we were also able to change the time to a little later in the morning, around 10 or 11 a.m., which also allowed women greater flexibility to attend the services online. There is something powerful about women from across England and around the world logging in to our livestream to engage in more singing and communal prayer which helps to create a religious experience around Rosh Chodesh that is spiritually uplifting.”

In addition, as Zoom and online platforms are not considered by Orthodox Jews to be a minyan and therefore don’t have formal Halachic requirements, these events don’t require a Torah, which eliminates the need for a rabbi or shul to provide one. Another barrier lifted.

Roselyn Bell, a New Jersey resident who has been a part of the Women’s Tefillah Group of Raritan Valley for over 30 years, said she didn’t think the pandemic has made it easier to connect, “but it has certainly shown where our communal ties feel strongest.”

Bell’s group is used to operating in challenging conditions. In the 30 years it has existed, the women have always met outside of a traditional shul setting, often relying on rented spaces or private homes to host their events. “The matter of not needing a Torah or a rabbi has not really changed,” she said. “Our Women’s Tefillah Group did have access to a Torah and we didn’t have a local rabbi before the pandemic. If anything has changed, it is access to learning opportunities online. There are so many online shiurim—from our local shul, from all sorts of yeshivot and organizations—that it sometimes feels overwhelming.”

Likewise, in Paris, Myriam Ackerman-Sommer, an Orthodox French rabbinical student at Yeshivat Maharat in New York City, returned home this summer for what she thought was a few weeks. She and her husband, Emile Ackerman, also a rabbinical student, were running the BASE Paris Hillel summer programs for young French Jews when she found out that neither of their yeshivas in New York City would be reopening for in-person learning in the fall, instead shifting to remote learning. They decided to stay in Paris and log on to their rabbinical classes remotely, while continuing to run community projects for women and the wider community in Paris.

As France has since been put into a harsh COVID-19 lockdown, all the programs that they are running have now moved online. Still, Ackerman-Sommer said, “Jewish life is going to continue no matter what. COVID-19 is not going to stop us, but we have ensured that there will be options for women and creative learning during this time.”

In Paris, the options for women’s Jewish learning at a high level are limited. “Orthodox women generally don’t teach and study Talmud and Halacha in France,” Ackerman-Sommer explained, “so we have specifically focused on providing women learning opportunities online through our livestreams and podcasts that focus on them obtaining important skills for women’s learning, which has had to be slightly more creative learning during this time.”

Back in Melbourne, as the Women’s Tefillah service for Simchat Torah finished within the allotted hour, the women shuffled out of the shul. Many of the women said it had been uplifting to participate in in-person prayers after so many months at home and with access to online-only spiritual content.

There is a sense of optimism that by the time Hanukkah arrives there will be further opportunities for in-person prayer and gatherings. And if not, women are already discussing how they could continue to succeed in creating engaging and spiritually uplifting content on their online platforms.

After all, global pandemic or not, despite all odds, Orthodox women’s groups have always been remarkably quick to adapt and continue to creatively implement programs for women who have sought out spiritual experiences.

Nomi Kaltmann is Tablet magazine’s Australian correspondent. Follow her on Twitter @NomiKal.