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A member of ‘Women of the Wall’ lays tefillin at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Israel, February 10, 2016. Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images
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Laying Tefillin Is Not Just For the Boys

A writer reflects on her decision to lay tefillin at a Conservative day school, despite it being frowned upon

by
Gabriela Geselowitz
September 14, 2016
Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images
A member of 'Women of the Wall' lays tefillin at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Israel, February 10, 2016. Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images

Editor’s note: Every day this week, The Scroll will publish a memory relating to an experience in Jewish education, in honor of those wonderful kids in our lives who are heading back to school, back to where it all begins, for better or worse.

I was raised in an Orthodox neighborhood on Long Island, and my parents sent my siblings and me to the local Solomon Schechter day school, which means that it was affiliated with the Conservative Jewish movement. Most families attended the school because it was Jewish but non-Orthodox (a lot of secular Israeli families send their kids there, for example), and/or belonged to Conservative synagogues themselves for social reasons.

The Conservative movement tends towards egalitarianism, allowing women to ritualistically participate in Judaism the same way men do. In theory, in Conservative Judaism, women may lead prayer, read from the Torah, and choose to wear tefillin in the mornings. But in my school, despite its affiliation with a Jewish movement that theoretically celebrated women’s equal involvement, it was almost unheard of. My sister, who’s three years older than I, was the second girl at Schechter to make that choice within the decade, and no one could remember anyone before that. Her peers mostly responded to her choice with bullying. Soon, I’d make the same choice she did.

But because the school was nominally Conservative, they somehow hired a female rabbi the year before my bat mitzvah. I would sit in her office during lunchtime to talk about everything from puberty to nervousness and excitement about reading from the Torah (I was a nerd, you see). But within months, parents who opposed the idea of a female rabbi lobbied her out of the school. My sister had since graduated, and the rabbi I trusted was gone.

My parents asked me before my bat mitzvah to make my own decision about wearing tefillin, and not just to copy my big sister. But I knew that I wanted to take on the mitzvah of tefillin. I wanted to feel the physical connection to God when I was davening in the mornings. Why should the boys be the only ones who get to feel that way?

So I wore my tefillin when I prayed, and I found I loved it. For a budding adolescent, laying tefillin was a feminine act. Adorning myself made me feel like a princess, and the part of the tefillin that sat on my head felt like a tiara.

It turned out I had it better than my sister, as I was largely left to my prayer customs in peace. One female student even briefly joined me, but she was teased for it and stopped within the year. I remember asking my classmates, who bullied me for a myriad of other reasons (I was an easy target), why they left only me alone about it. I remember one boy shrugging and saying it was because I didn’t make a big deal out of it. Maybe they weren’t used to me exuding confidence, but that’s how tefillin made me feel.

One day in eighth grade, I was laying tefillin and a mom I didn’t recognize (she was a school volunteer), approached me with an excited look on her face.

“Can I take your picture?” she asked me.

“Um, why?” I naturally wanted to know.

“I’m an amateur photographer,” she replied earnestly, “and I keep albums of photos of weird things I encounter!”

I didn’t know if I should be flattered or offended. “Oh,” I said. “You know that girls can totally wear tefillin, right? I’m not the only one.”

“Well I’ve never heard of it!” she said. Then she took out a small camera and snapped my picture, as I smiled awkwardly in that pre-braces way. Sometimes I wonder if that image is sitting in someone’s photo album—my picture an addition to some pleasant Long Island mom’s collection of oddities—maybe between snaps of a Coney Island sideshow attraction and an albino cat.

The author and her husband’s arms, after laying tefillin together at Robinson’s Arch, the egalitarian section behind the Kotel in 2014. (Image: Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein)

The author and her husband’s arms, after laying tefillin together at Robinson’s Arch, the egalitarian section behind the Kotel in 2014. (Image: Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein)

The year after the photographer incident I switched to the (officially named) Solomon Schechter High School of Long Island nearly an hour away from home, on its own a sort of adolescent hell (15 was a rough age). But it was the year I realized that I wasn’t “Conservadox,” just because I was Conservative and kept Shabbat. I learned that there were other Jews who cared about Judaism being both traditional and egalitarian, and that in most grades of the schools, there were about two girls out of a full class of 40 or so who laid tefillin. I was still the only one my year (though I still wonder why), but no one batted an eye. At the end of my tenure there, when I was 18, I admitted out loud in discussion in Hebrew class that laying tefillin still made me feel like a princess. The teacher and students thought it was sweet.

I recently got married. The morning of my wedding, I woke up feeling nervous and excited. They say a bride has God’s ear the day of her wedding, so the first thing I did when I woke up was lay tefillin and daven on my own. It felt as natural as wearing the veil.

Gabriela Geselowitz is a writer and the former editor of Jewcy.com.

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