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The Minyan: Orthodox Women

In a roundtable discussion about the state of the American Jewish community, talking about women’s religious and cultural roles, the dangers of social media, and the value of modesty

by
Abigail Pogrebin
August 11, 2022
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
The Minyan is a series of moderated roundtable discussions about the state of the Jewish community in America from a variety of perspectives. By bringing together at least 10 people from a shared demographic or background—“everyday” people with personal opinions, not “experts” or titled professionals who earn their salaries by crafting statements on these issues—we hope to foster conversations that will illuminate how different kinds of people think about the larger Jewish community, and their own place in it. Read other installments of The Minyan here.
The Minyan is a series of moderated roundtable discussions about the state of the Jewish community in America from a variety of perspectives. By bringing together at least 10 people from a shared demographic or background—“everyday” people with personal opinions, not “experts” or titled professionals who earn their salaries by crafting statements on these issues—we hope to foster conversations that will illuminate how different kinds of people think about the larger Jewish community, and their own place in it. Read other installments of The Minyan here.

Searching for a diverse group of Orthodox women to participate in this roundtable, it became clear how much resistance there is to labels: “Orthodox,” “modern Orthodox,” “Hasidic,” “Chassidish,” “Yeshivish,” “Chabad.” Suffice it to say that this Minyan includes those who lean toward more traditional observance, gender roles, and Talmud learning, and are either opposed to women as clergy or consider it unnecessary. There are also those who support complete parity for girls in Jewish education and endorse women as Orthodox clergy. Several fall in between. Similarly, when we talked about social media, there were some who felt it has been a crucial connector and educator for women in the Orthodox community, especially during COVID-19, and others who felt it was a pernicious scourge.

In talking to Orthodox women before this discussion, I found their opinions varied most when it came to expectations around modesty, purity, and prayer, so those are the topics I chose to start our conversation.

THE PARTICIPANTS

Their ages, locations, and the adjectives they use to describe themselves

Tehilla: 36, Staten Island. Orthodox.

Devorah: 49, New Mexico. Chabad.

Shira: 24, New York City. Modern Orthodox.

Galya: 18, Bronx. Open Orthodox.

Elana: 39, Cleveland. “To the far right of modern Orthodox without being Yeshivish.”

Anna: 26, North Jersey. “Very left modern Orthodox, open Orthodox.”

Maayan: 37, Brooklyn. Orthodox, Hasidic, “Chabad, if you will.”

Shoshi: 38, Pennsylvania. “I was a matchmaker on Saw You at Sinai, so I remember all the various Jewish terms you can use to refer to yourself. But can I just say Orthodox?”

Leah: 52, Brooklyn. “I hate all the labels, but if I had to pick one, I would pick Orthodox. But I’d much rather say that I’m mindful.”

Lauren: 43, Brooklyn. “I would consider myself an observant, Sephardic Jew. We don’t really use the word ‘Orthodox.’ I follow Halacha.”

Malka: 73, New York suburbs. “I’m not sure how I identify myself; suffice it to say, I fit in with this group.”

Marianne: 54, Skokie, Illinois. ”If you had to put a label, I would say modern Orthodox. I had a great teacher in my high school, who was asked this question, and he said, ‘I’m just a Jew who tries to follow the mitzvot.’ I thought that was an awesome answer.”

Let’s start with tzniut, or tznius—the laws in Orthodox Judaism around modesty, which require women to largely cover arms and legs, and then after marriage, wear a head covering or wig. Can you share what about those practices are important or meaningful to you personally?

Tehilla: I grew up with tznius. We were encouraged to cover ourselves up. And really, to me, it’s about keeping what’s most precious sacred and private. We never exposed our bodies to anybody except our husbands. It’s just like a diamond in an enclosed case, put away. What is the most sacred and precious is hidden from the public. That’s the idea of it. And the idea of the wig is that we get married and it’s a new level of tznius, of hiding what’s most precious and reserving it only for our husbands.

Devorah: It wasn’t until I came to New Mexico that I really appreciated tznius even more. I’m one of just a handful of Orthodox women in the entire state, and there’s a certain perception of Orthodox women, based on what people see on television or Netflix. But I find that when they see me and I’m covered and I’m modest, I’m treated differently. And it’s not because I’m a rebbetzin [wife of a rabbi]. It’s because I’m dressed and conduct myself a certain way and I’m wearing a head covering. It’s just harder to touch me, to say or do something inappropriate. I’m sort of standing up and setting myself up for a certain treatment: “This is who I am.”

Modesty is a proactive choice. It’s not because somebody is imposing it on you or because there’s shame about our bodies. We’re choosing to keep our bodies private.

You’re saying because of your modest dress, you’re treated with a kind of respectful distance.

Devorah: That’s right. And as a mother of daughters, I appreciate that even more. It could be hard, when all their friends are running around and dressed in whatever. But my daughters have to conduct themselves a certain way. And it just sort of sets the stage; everything is different around that.

Elana: Since high school, I’ve covered my elbows and knees. But four years ago, when we were living in Pittsburgh and I was teaching fifth and sixth grade girls and high school girls, I had an early miscarriage. It was early enough that the students were maybe looking to see, “Oh, is she pregnant or isn’t she?” At that point, I remember feeling an extra appreciation for tznius and the fact that I don’t wear such tight clothing. Like, “How wonderful it is that my body is not always being stared at.” I can give you different reasons why I am grateful for tznius, but after that miscarriage, when women were like looking and I didn’t really want to share it, I was really appreciative that my form is not always showing.

Shoshi: I had a lot of infertility issues, and for a point in my life, I had to consult many doctors, but also many rabbis and yoatzot [women certified by male rabbis to answer women’s personal questions] about my underwear [certain stains are indicators of a woman’s cycle], my sex life, what was going on between my legs, and suddenly all these things that you’ve been hiding your whole life were so exposed. So there can be, at some points in your life, a big struggle to maintain that sense of modesty, when you have to suddenly put it all out there for all to see.

Leah: Something that Shoshi said really caught my attention: the distinction that she’s making between modesty and shame. Modesty is a proactive choice. It’s not because somebody is imposing it on you or because there’s shame about our bodies. We’re choosing to keep our bodies private.

Anna: I didn’t always dress as modestly as I do now, and I used to constantly be adjusting my clothing and questioning how my body looked in it. I don’t really have that problem anymore. I’m not spending so much mental energy on that.

Maayan: I didn’t grow up Orthodox and didn’t always dress with tzniut. Now I don’t have to think about tugging at my clothes—Is my shirt too low? Is this too high? There’s so much mental space that gets taken up by the thought of thinking, “Are other people staring at me? Is there something wrong with my clothing somehow?” Now I can peacefully go about my day and think about more important things.

The feminist movement influenced what I felt was my comfort zone.

Galya: I feel like I don’t need to look observant, per se. My neighborhood is very Jewish. If I’m with my dad and he’s wearing a kippah, or with my brother, it’s socially acceptable in my sphere for me to not wear skirts all the time. It’s just not my vibe.

Devorah: I find that tznius—modesty—is actually natural for all women. I don’t think it’s a difficult thing; it’s internal.

What do you mean by “natural” and “internal”?

Devorah: A little girl is born, and as she grows up, she does not want to be showing herself. Immodesty grows on her and it becomes the norm. But I don’t think that that’s actually the natural way we are.

Malka: I’m the oldest in this group, and I lived through a time of rising awareness of women and the feminist movement. I grew up in a home where my mom wore a sheitl [wig], and my rebellion was to wear jeans. The feminist movement influenced what I felt was my comfort zone. Being behind a one-way mechitza just didn’t work for me after a while. As a married woman and a mother of three including a daughter, I evolved and wanted to promote a certain kind of a voice for my daughter.

Since being married delineates different expectations and strictures in Orthodox life, I think it would be helpful to understand how many of you are speaking from a place of being married—please raise your hands. I see eight out of the 12 of you: Shoshi, Elana, Marianne, Malka, Lauren, Tehilla, Maayan, and Devorah. For those eight who are married, how many cover your hair? I see seven: Tehilla, Devorah, Marianne, Elana, Maayan, Shoshi, Lauren.

Leah: I’m no longer married, but I cover my hair. Because all the reasons for covering my hair still apply. I was married for 26 years. I have five children. I have no reason under the sun for me to take my wig off.

Once we do something, we don’t go backward. If you light two candles, you don’t start lighting one. We take something on. We just keep going.

Can you explain—for readers who may not know—why the wig is integral to modesty?

Leah: It’s not the wig per se. It’s the covering of hair, which is considered ervah [naked, indecent]. The communities in which I live and work take the wig as a standard. Religion and life are one and the same. When I walk into an event or a family or social gathering, I have the status of a married woman. The wig is sort of an announcement of where I belong. Taking off that wig to me would be renouncing some of the travels and experiences of my life. I’m not looking to go backward, but to embrace who I am. The fact that I am no longer married did not change the other pieces of my life. I still host my kids for Pesach, I still build a sukkah, and I still wear a wig.

Maayan: Once we do something, we don’t go backward. If you light two candles, you don’t start lighting one. We take something on. We just keep going. This is something that Leah does for herself.

Leah: At this point in my life, my wig is actually nicer than my hair. (Laughs)

When you look at the landscape of raising Orthodox girls, is there something that worries you about social media—or conversely, do you think there’s a positive way in which it has changed the landscape for Orthodox women?

Lauren: I have two teenage daughters who do use social media. And it is a very big concern of mine. It adds a lot of social pressure in terms of Jewish dress, because it’s in the conversation about what’s appropriate to wear and what you feel good in. Every item of clothing is a discussion of what is appropriate. I hope that there is some balancing of what the typical image is on social media or even out in the world, as opposed to what we do and what we value in our home. 

Elana: I teach middle school primarily and some high school and some elementary school. So I see up close what social media has done. Girls are much more insecure and constantly comparing themselves. None of the girls think they’re pretty enough anymore, none of them think they’re thin enough, they all nitpick at themselves.

We stay away from social media. In my opinion, it’s a tremendous waste of time. It’s spending your life comparing other people’s possessions and private lives.

Tehilla, as you think about what your children might be exposed to, how you are managing what the world will throw at them?

Tehilla: We stay away from social media. In my opinion, it’s a tremendous waste of time. It’s spending your life comparing other people’s possessions and private lives. We have some filtered internet, but we try to focus on the life in front of us and not the screen. And you see the difference. You see their brains working, the quality time, without the distractions.

Shoshi: Before I even had kids, I gave up on social media because I am an easily jealous person. And I’m very gullible. I believe everyone is in Hawaii on a Tuesday. It’s just not good for me. So religion aside, it’s not something I’m interested in.

Marianne: I actually have a pretty large social media presence. I’m on both Facebook and Instagram, and for me, it has developed a community of people with whom I can share my life and my Torah. I teach seventh and eighth graders, so I completely understand the dangers of social media for them. But for adults, it can offer, for many, a very specific community. The connections that I’ve made through social media have been very meaningful.

I have seen that you use your Facebook and Instagram threads to answer frequently asked questions that come up for women in Orthodox life.

Marianne: I have smicha [ordination] from Yeshivat Maharat [the first seminary for Orthodox women, founded in 2009]. I use the title “Rabbi.” I’ve also lived in this community for a very long time and I have friends and connections with all ranges of Orthodoxy; they knew, years ago, that I was going to rabbinical school. And in one instance, someone you would probably consider more right-wing Orthodox came up to me and said, “Please let me know when you’re done with your study, because I do not want to go to a man to ask a shaila [a question]—specifically about niddah [purity laws]—ever again. That was a great responsibility. When women come and ask me those questions, I take that extraordinarily seriously.

Raise your hands if you are personally satisfied with the role of women in Orthodox Judaism. I see seven: Tehilla, Devorah, Elana, Marianne, Maayan, Leah, and Shoshi. Anna and Lauren are in between. Shira and Galya are not raising their hands.

Shira: The very fact that the first question that you asked us today was about modesty and what we wear, and the word Torah didn’t come up until about 45 minutes into the conversation—that does say something about how Orthodox women are perceived by people outside of the community. It also says something about what our role is expected to be within that community. I don’t think that means that women are shoved into a particular box and told to be quiet and sit in the corner. But I do think that there are a lot of ways, as Marianne said in the beginning, that a Jew who observes the mitzvot doesn’t necessarily get as much access—at least for Orthodox women—as maybe I wish there would be. There are certain kinds of religious spaces—not just synagogues, but also basei midrash [houses of study]—where women don’t feel like they’re natural members of those communities. They sometimes feel like the “other” coming in from the outside, and I wish that weren’t the case. I want to serve God in all the ways that I can. Sometimes there is a sense that women aren’t full citizens of the Orthodox community. Given all the hands that went up before, I’m sure that plenty will disagree with me.

I want to serve God in all the ways that I can. Sometimes there is a sense that women aren’t full citizens of the Orthodox community.

Anna: In my previous community in Baltimore, I was comfortable with where I was, but there’s lots of communities where I wouldn’t be comfortable with my role as a woman. Becoming more observant and becoming a part of an Orthodox community was something I had to think a lot about because, similar to Malka, a lot of my beliefs stem from second-wave radical feminism. I had to think really hard about: Did I want to be in a community and living a lifestyle where I was saying, “I’m very different from men and my role will therefore be different”?

Marianne: I am satisfied with the role of women, but I actively push the envelope in what I do. I went to Yeshivat Maharat and got smicha to be a female Orthodox clergy and be trained that way. Not without some pushback. I’m in a synagogue where women do as much as women can do halachically within an Orthodox space. So I’m comfortable, but I will push it to be comfortable for me and other women in that world.

But there are still red lines even for you. When it comes to the minyan or the mechitzah—the divider between the men’s and women’s sections in synagogue—you are not praying with men.

Marianne: Yes. Those are red lines. And the interesting thing is that the red lines are more of a problem with my colleagues who are to the left of me. It’s hard for them to reconcile the idea of a feminist who would also choose to be in a space that is segregated, even though I’m making that choice.

Can someone share, even with Marianne here (whom I’m sure we all respect), whether you are not comfortable with women as clergy and explain why?

I think that having women in leadership roles in the synagogue—in shul—I think it pushes men out of one of the last remaining leadership spaces that is available to them in 2022.

Leah: I’m not comfortable with it. And my first reason is barely religious. It’s more cultural and there’s a religious component, too. I own that. I think it flies in the face of mesora [tradition], and it goes against every standard that Haredi Jewry and Orthodox Judaism stand for today. I think that open Orthodoxy and Yeshivat Maharat just tip over the line. I mean nothing personally, Marianne, but from a pragmatic perspective, I think that having women in leadership roles in the synagogue—in shul—I think it pushes men out of one of the last remaining leadership spaces that is available to them in 2022. And I think that the literature bears this out; studies on churches found that as women became more active, the men retreated from religious life. I just think that women’s lives are so rich, full and meaningful, why do we have to do this?

Devorah, do you draw the line on women’s leadership when it comes to being in front of a congregation or leading prayer?

Devorah: All Orthodox women have become way more confident, more open, more sure in what we believe, what we want. Not embarrassed about our lifestyle. As far as rabbis, clergy, and leadership? At Chabad, my husband and I are kind of co-directors. So women have a leadership position without being the rabbi. I find that I can get more done not being the rabbi—either behind the scenes or in front, through mentoring and leadership opportunities, and classes. I mean it doesn’t stop. When it comes to chevra kadisha—burying a person—I’m doing it without being the rabbi. There is so much that we can do as women. When we’re co-directors, there’s nobody who thinks that one is the boss and one is not. We just have different roles and sometimes we take each other’s roles if we need to. I’m very comfortable not being a rabbi. I don’t need it. In fact, I’m kind of relieved. I’m glad I’m not counted in a minyan or else I’d have to go daven. I’m not looking to take on more. We find that women could be so very powerful without that title.

Elana: I personally wouldn’t become a rabbi, but I think it is such an incredible resource, and I’m so appreciative that people like Marianne are around and exist as a resource. If it’s giving women an opportunity to serve Hashem in the way they really feel they want to, that’s great. Let everyone serve Hashem in the way that’s meaningful to them. I think it’s an incredible resource and so valuable to the other part of the Orthodox community that desperately needs this.

Galya: I do respect the people who are choosing to be female clergy. I think it’s good for our community.

Sometimes the public conversation around child-rearing and homemaking in Orthodox life can be described or regarded as less substantive or significant than women’s education. Can any of you speak to that?

Let everyone serve Hashem in the way that’s meaningful to them.

Tehilla: To me, there’s nothing more important, no greater role in the world than raising the next generation. The woman is the foundation of the home; there’s no question about it. She can control the atmosphere. The way she relates to her husband and her children, it’s a ripple effect. And every little word, every little action, if you focus, you see. You see the effects of it, and you see the power in it. It’s just huge.

Leah: I agree with what Tehilla said, and she said it beautifully. But now I’m past that stage. My baby is 21. I have five children and 14 grandchildren. I can tell you that being on the other side of it, I see a difference in my mindfulness and commitment. When a woman is raising children, besides the lessons that she’s imparting, she’s also constantly holding herself up to a higher standard. Somebody is watching. Somebody is learning. Now, when I go home and I’m preparing for Shabbes, and it’s just me, I have to think: Am I expending as much effort? Am I keeping to where I want to be? It’s a little easier to let the little things slide. So I agree with what Tehilla said; when my kids were young, those were the most intense, incredible years. But they had a secondhand effect on maintaining the standard of commitment. Now I have to work a little harder because I’m sort of flying solo.

If you had hopes for what your son or grandson would receive and master in Jewish learning, would you have the same hopes for your daughter?

Leah: Specifically learning the Gemara [Talmud]?

That’s where I wanted to go.

Leah: So you’re asking, do we feel that the women, the girls should be taught the same level of Gemara as the boys?

Yes. Raise your hands if you think it should be equal. [Four do.] Marianne, Galya, Shira, Lauren. Elana, do you want to explain your in-between answer?

Elana: I think it depends what you’re passionate about. For a student like me, I love Chumash [Torah]. That’s what gets me going and inspired. So I would want that to be 100% equal. But if I had a daughter like Marianne and the halachic [Jewish law] side really spoke to her, then I would want her to be able to express her Avodat Hashem—serving Hashem—in whatever way is meaningful to her.

Marianne: I grew up this way. I went to a yeshiva high school where boys and girls were held to the same standard for Gemara and everything else. It wasn’t even a question. And for my children, they were fortunate enough to have a yeshiva high school here that offers Gemara to the girls. There’s kind of a movement to have more parity.

If you ask why I choose to cover my hair this way, I could give you a halachic basis for that. To be able to do that, you have to be learned. You have to understand.

Shoshi: In our community, we posted an event for a men’s learning night through our Kollel [community] that said any man is welcome to come and learn. And someone got an email saying, “What about the women? Why aren’t the women coming?” And I was saying to my husband, who is such a traditionalist, “Why would any woman want to? This is a man thing. The men are obligated to sit and learn. I’m so thrilled that I don’t have to go to this thing.” But he made me think about it on its head, which is that everything I do in my Jewish life, I could explain to you the reason behind it. If you ask why I choose to cover my hair this way, I could give you a halachic basis for that. To be able to do that, you have to be learned. You have to understand. You can’t just fly by the seat of your pants and go by what your mom did. You have to know the stuff. So to that end, I think women do have to be educated, and also to be able to answer questions for her daughter, her children, which is different than the obligation for men who should be studying Torah.

Anna: Right now I’m working and living at a yeshiva camp for high school girls. And they spend most of the day learning Gemara. I look up to them. They’re teenagers, but their desire to learn is so aspirational for me. There also is something intellectually that happens when you’re learning Gemara that I personally haven’t gotten from learning Chumash or anything like that. Just talking about this makes me think of my friend, who is a genius and who grew up very frum [observant], and she no longer is. She’s very “off the derech” [off the path, leaving the life of Halacha]. She told me that if she had been born a boy, she probably would still be frum, because she would have had the intellectual outlet of learning Gemara. That really broke my heart—to hear that not having that outlet drove her away from her observance.

Devorah: My daughters go to school out of town in Chicago, and they do have a Gemara class together with Halacha, and Tanya—Hasidic philosophy. It’s a lot. Their day is long. They don’t finish till after 5. They come home for their Pesach vacation, and they’re not helping me prepare for the holiday; they’re doing their Chumash report. Sometimes I wish my son would have to work as hard as my daughters. I don’t think everybody should be learning the same thing anyway. So yes, the level of learning that the boys have is a little bit different, but the girls are learning a lot. They’re strong, and they go on to do whatever they want.

Malka, you have seen the arc of women’s education and leadership over your lifetime—more than most of us. Can you give us a sense of what you see in terms of the opportunities for women’s education and your comfort level with girls getting the same Gemara education that boys get?

Malka: Having been behind the mechitza all that time that I was growing up, and seeing the men have opportunities that the women did not … I went to a Chabad school—first grade through high school, and girls did not have the same opportunities. We had lessons about how to dress modestly. That bothered me a great deal. My daughter had a women’s tefilah [prayer] bat mitzvah, and not only did it empower her on some level, but it empowered me. Standing in front of the Torah and looking at it personally, I said to myself, “Wow. How is it that I’ve never had this experience before?” So I’ve tried to become more involved in shul roles. I was on the board of my shul and that also gave me a sense of—how shall I say?—that I’ve never had this before, and now I have it.

Raising young children, I miss saying the ‘tefilot’—the prayers—that you can only say in shul. But I wouldn’t want to wake up every morning and go to a minyan.

Shira: One of the reasons I believe that rigorous Gemara education for girls and women is tremendously important is specifically because it’s really hard. It’s the kind of thing that you have to spend a lot of hours studying a lot if you want to be able to have any kind of access to it. So much of this is about having unfettered access to our own tradition, being able to open up a book, look at the text and understand it, not needing to have that filtered through other people who are telling you what things mean. Even though a woman in a more traditional community might have a more rigorous background in the Chumash and its commentaries than a man would, it is still the case that a man who is educated in a traditional Orthodox background would ultimately be able to open up a Chumash with Rashi [the Medieval commentator] and understand it, whereas I don’t think that is true of most women knowing the Gemara in the Orthodox community. There is a line in the Mishna, if I’m not mistaken, that says, “Anyone who teaches their daughter Torah, it is as though he has taught her frivolity.” But today, even in very traditional circles, this thing [women learning Gemara] that was once met with a lot of resistance has opened up in a significant way.

Since women in Orthodox Judaism are not required to go to shul the way men are, how many of you find more spiritual power in your prayer at home versus in shul?

Elana: I love davening at home—as long as it’s quiet and I can focus on it. I’ve been davening every day since fourth grade. Raising young children, I miss saying the tefilot—the prayers—that you can only say in shul. But I wouldn’t want to wake up every morning and go to a minyan.

Tehilla: Prayer is internal, so it’s really between a person and God and really nothing else is needed. But I understand that some do need that atmosphere in the synagogue in order to feel that connection. I do believe that as you mature and develop what prayer really is, nothing else is needed. It’s your own soul, and that’s it.

Devorah: When my daughters are home for Yom Kippur, pregnant or with a baby, and they say something like, “Oh, I didn’t really get to daven!” I tell them, “You have a baby! That is way more powerful to me than any davening you could do. That is your davening. You’re pregnant with the child, you’re bringing one into this world, you’re raising a child. To me, that’s the most powerful prayer. And when you can, you’ll go to shul and you’ll pray your heart out.”

Shoshi: There’s different things for different reasons, for different days, for different seasons—when a shul is more helpful or home is more helpful. And I’m grateful that I’m a woman and get to choose.

We have two people in this conversation who converted, who chose Judaism. Anna, can you talk about choosing an Orthodox conversion after having gone through a Reform conversion?

Becoming a married woman, it was an automatic signal to everyone that, OK, she’s wearing the ‘sheitl.’ She’s one of us. She’s following our customs.

Anna: I had wanted to convert to Judaism for a long time and I was leaning toward a more liberal conversion. But around the time I was preparing for the beit din [panel of three rabbinic judges] and mikvah [ritual bath], I realized that I did want to be more traditionally observant. I did my conversion with a rabbi through the Chicago Rabbinical Council. And to make that jump, I had to live my life under a microscope for two years and then appear in front of three old men and have that ordeal. But it was very much worth it.

Maayan?

Maayan: When I was 13, I felt that something was spiritually off. I did a lot of journeying around spirituality and then found out that a great-grandmother of mine was rumored to be Jewish. And I thought, “Aha, maybe I haven’t been exploring the right places here. I need to look into Judaism more.” I started off in a Conservative place, but then eventually moved to Brooklyn and found an Orthodox rabbi and had an Orthodox conversion. And now I am what everyone else would call ultra-Orthodox.

You have spoken publicly about being a Jew of Color and described to me movingly in our pre-interview that you feel entirely part of your Orthodox community. But do you still get too many questions?

Maayan: Before being married, walking into a synagogue or a Jewish communal space with cornrows or braids, I’d get a lot of questions: “Why are you here? What’s going on?” And a lot of mixed reactions. Some extreme in the negative and some extreme in the positive. But then, getting to know different people, I’ve built a really beautiful community here. And also, becoming a married woman, it was an automatic signal to everyone that, OK, she’s wearing the sheitl. She’s one of us. She’s following our customs. Also, I’d been there for a while. Going to new shuls was harder. Like when my husband and I first got married and he’d visit different synagogues, he would ask, “Do you want to go to this one?” and I’d say, “I’m not quite sure because I don’t know what kind of questioning I’m going to get when I get to the women’s section.” It’s always really uncomfortable for me. My husband is Israeli, and he’s more traditionally Jewish-looking. So he would scout out the women’s section for me, talk to the rebbetzin, and find out what’s going on. And he’d tell me, “There’s a good women’s section there. I talked to the rebbetzin; she’s waiting to welcome you to shul.” It’s just been beautiful ever since. And he’s been so supportive of trying to help me to feel included.

The final question for all of you, however you want to answer this: What is one thing you would like people to know about Orthodox women?

Devorah: We are doing this by choice. Nobody’s forcing us to do any of this, because I get that a lot.

Lauren: I would say not to judge Orthodox women on the surface. I think there’s so much discussion about what women wear. And there are assumptions about what everything else means in their life based on what religious symbols they’re wearing. That’s a big mistake.

Elana: Within the scope of Orthodoxy, everything is available to you.

I don’t think I fully appreciated being a woman until I became an Orthodox woman.

Tehilla: The goal is to just truly get in touch with your femininity. God gave us our minds, our bodies. He created us in a certain way, in a different way than men. We are who we are. The culture, the society around us makes it very difficult to really do that. But once you get there, the issues, problems and self-defense just falls away.

Leah: My commitment to Hakadosh Baruch Hu [the Holy One, blessed be He] has shaped my choices. But even the restrictions are liberating. My life as an Orthodox woman is rich, exciting, rewarding and meaningful. In some ways we are like everyone else. In some ways we’re not. But we’re facing life head-on and making choices.

Marianne: Our tradition empowers us to have a truly authentic and meaningful relationship with God and to live that life. It’s open to us in more ways than people would understand. It’s our choice, as Devorah said. We are adult, thinking, self-actualized people, and we make these choices because it provides us the most authentic way for us to serve God.

Galya: Orthodoxy isn’t our only character trait. Even though it is an important part of our identity, it doesn’t have to define you.

Shoshi: There are a lot of broad strokes being painted on Jews to the right, whereas there is a lot of space, love, and acceptance given to Jews to the left. I just want people to take the same energy to understand those to the right of them as they would those to the left.

Maayan: I was in an interview for my daughter to get into a school, and they asked me, “Would you be comfortable with her at her bat mitzvah putting on tefillin?” I said, “No. I don’t think those things are necessary for her. She doesn’t need to be adorned because she’s glorious and beautiful as she is. She shines as she is.” We all shine as we are. I don’t think I fully appreciated being a woman until I became an Orthodox woman.

Anna: I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to very actively choose to serve Hashem in the way that’s most meaningful for me. I had absolutely no pressure from any direction to be doing this. My only wish or hope would be that every woman, regardless of the community or family that she comes from, would feel the same amount of freedom to serve Hashem in a way that’s meaningful to her.

Shira: We’re a group of people who probably disagree about a lot of important things. We have chosen this life, although it exists on a huge spectrum, for a whole number of different reasons. Respect all of those positions as real positions of real people—with agency—making choices.

Abigail Pogrebin is the author of Stars of David and My Jewish Year. She moderates the interview series “What Everyone’s Talking About” at the JCC in Manhattan.

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