Almost a year after giving women a greater role but stopping short of going egalitarian, East Brunswick Jewish Center has begun offering a service in which women can fully participate and read from the Torah.
The synagogue, which has always had two Friday evening Shabbat services, has now made the late service egalitarian, while leaving the early one traditional.
As of March 26, the synagogue’s Saturday morning Shabbat service will be egalitarian once monthly.
EBJC was one of the last Conservative shuls in the state to bar women from having an aliya — a blessing delivered as part of the Torah reading — at services other than the women’s tefilla group, and to not count women as part of the 10-person minyan in regular services.
Before deciding 10 months ago to allow women to have a larger role in the service, the congregation held a series of discussions led by both local and national figures over the course of the previous year and sent congregants a questionnaire to gauge opinion.
As a result, new guidelines allowed women to open the ark at all services; deliver divrei Torah, or sermons, from the bima; recite such prayers as Ashrei and concluding prayers and songs; and to read from megillot at holidays like Purim and Sukkot. Bat mitzva services, which had always been held on Friday nights, could be held on Saturday morning, with the bat mitzva girl reading from the Torah in a women’s tefilla group with an unrestricted number of men in attendance.
However, women were still not allowed to have an aliya or be counted in a regular minyan — restrictions that have fallen in the vast majority of Conservative synagogues in the 26 years since the movement began ordaining female rabbis.
“Some people were disappointed by that decision” to stop short of full egalitarianism, acknowledged religious vice president Elissa Smith. “We heard some complaining.”
Additionally, in the fall some members began holding egalitarian minyans, or prayer services, in private homes rather than attend services at EBJC.
“I thought that maybe we should revisit the issue,” said Smith. “I was curious to see how people felt and hopefully keep the synagogue together and happy.”
A special niche
The decision to initiate an egalitarian service was approved by the synagogue’s ritual and executive committees and by its board of directors in February.
“I think our first decision and my policy has always been that we would adjust based on the needs of the congregation,” said Rabbi Aaron Benson, who came to the synagogue in the fall of 2008. “As time has gone by we have determined our needs should be that we remain primarily traditional but should offer an egalitarian service as well because there are people in the community who want that expression, and we want to accurately meet the needs of congregants.”
“Since we offer two Friday night services anyway, it seemed this would satisfy the needs of the community,” added Benson. “At the end of the day, we certainly want to have people come together as a community to worship together on Shabbat.”
The synagogue will maintain the tradition of reserving the first and second aliya, one each for a descendant of a kohen or a Levite, for males. The Conservative movement is divided over whether the daughter of a kohen or Levite may be called for these two honorary aliyot.
In the egalitarian service, said the rabbi, we “expect women will participate in all the ways men do with the entire only caveat being the first two aliyot,” said the rabbi.
Smith said the compromise has satisfied members on both sides of the issue. While she was happy with the egalitarian alternative, the decision to keep a traditional service gives the synagogue a special niche within the Conservative movement.
“There are hardly any traditional synagogues left,” she explained. “Egalitarian people have a lot of choices elsewhere, but it is equally important to have a non-egalitarian choice so traditionalists feel they have a place. I’m really happy we’re providing them with a home.”