After almost a year of exploration and discussion, East Brunswick Jewish Center is expanding the participation of women in its religious services, but without going fully egalitarian.
Previously women were called to open the ark only on the High Holy Days, whereas now they will be called on at all services. In addition to English readings, women will now also be encouraged to deliver divrei Torah from the bima and may recite such prayers as Ashrei and concluding prayers and songs. Seating in the EBJC sanctuary has always been mixed.
The new policy will also allow women to read from megillot at holidays like Purim and Sukkot, and recite certain prayers and songs.
Girls’ banot mitzva services at the Conservative synagogue have always been held on Friday nights. Now, if a girl chooses to have her bat mitzva service on Saturday morning, she can read from the Torah in a women’s tefilla group, and an unrestricted number of men may attend.
Women will still be barred from having an aliya during the Torah reading at services other than the women’s tefilla group and will not be counted as part of the minyan in regular services.
“This consistently applies some of the policies we already have in place here,” said EBJC’s Rabbi Aaron Benson. “Now we will do these things all the time. My feeling is that any change to ritual practice has an emotional and communal as well as a halachic [Jewish legal] aspect to it. That being the case, this allows the East Brunswick Jewish Center to demonstrate that we value women as members of our synagogue and encourage their participation.”
EBJC will emphasize the role of women’s tefilla groups whose participants will be free to conduct their own services and read from the Torah. Benson said he hopes such a group will become a regular feature at Shabbat services.
The rabbi said he decided on a more traditional model for his synagogue based on congregational feedback gleaned from a survey and discussions following programs featuring other rabbis and experts on the issue. He added he was able to come up with such an approach that adhered “to traditional principles and standards” because of the latitude allowed within Conservative Judaism.
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism confirmed that EBJC is one of the last non-egalitarian synagogues in the state; but, Benson said, it is that uniqueness that has accounted for EBJC’s success.
“The less we have bowed to the pressures of a secular world that puzzles at the obligations and restrictions that we as religiously-minded people place ourselves under, the better off we have become,” said Benson.
Yet, he said, he believes that in its pursuit of traditional Judaism the congregation has been “overly cautious” in making changes regarding women. “I think it’s important that an expression of Conservative Judaism exists that marries the very best of Jewish authenticity with an embrace of the modern world,” he explained. “We’re still in the process of having a synagogue that espouses the best values of Conservative Judaism….”
Benson said other changes “that still express our values” may be instituted in the future.