When faced with demands from women for a more active role in worship services, the student Orthodox community at Princeton University began passing the Torah scroll over the mehitza dividing the genders so women could carry and touch it.
While that was within Jewish law, the idea was a somewhat out-of-the box response to one of the many issues young Orthodox Jews face as they confront the modern world.
Those challenges and how those in their 20s and 30s are shaping the Jewish future was the subject of a Feb. 28 panel discussion of the Orthodox Forum of Edison/Highland Park. The program, held at Congregation Etz Ahaim in Highland Park, featured Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin, education director of the Orthodox Union’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth; Livingston psychologist Dr. Khaya Novick Eisenberg; and Elliot Salinger, education chair of Yavneh, the Orthodox community at the Center for Jewish Life/Hillel at Princeton.
Salinger, a sophomore philosophy major, said Yavneh made its decision about the passing of the scroll after much discussion. He said he knew of at least one other university, Columbia, that had implemented the practice in its Orthodox community.
“Feminism is a major issue that affects people on college campuses for the first time,” he said. “Here are all these opportunities to participate in activities the same as men, yet women enter shul and are forced to sit behind the mehitza and not be called on to do the things men do.”
However, Salinger said, the women at Princeton want to express themselves within the context of Orthodoxy, leading to the decision, after “much soul-searching” and “heartfelt discussion,” to let them share in the Torah procession while maintaining gender segregation.
That prompted moderator Barry Levinson to wonder whether “we’ll all be handing the Torah over the mehitza in 20 years?”
Yavneh also now has a female gabbanit, said Salinger. The gabbai, traditionally male, assists in organizing the Torah reading and assigns aliyot.
Eisenberg, who often deals with adolescents in her practice, said for all “emerging adults” — ages 18-29 — there are markers along the way to full adulthood. For the Orthodox, the major marker is marriage.
She noted that a 28-year-old single woman with a graduate degree and a successful professional career would often be held in less esteem than a 20-year-old married college student with a baby.
“You would never hear that college student be referred to as a girl,” she said.
Bashevkin said in their early 20s Orthodox young people face “the Bermuda triangle” of starting a relationship and a profession and beginning a religious life on their own terms. Then they have that “Oh my God, my life has started” moment when they realize they must constantly strive for professional advancement and rekindle or start an independent religious life.
Salinger said that for some Orthodox, who usually attend day schools, college presents a host of new things they never had to deal with before, including non-Jewish peers; the gay and lesbian issue; and juggling minyan attendance, religious holidays, and religious restrictions with extracurricular activities. Others who attended all-male or all-female schools now find themselves living in co-ed dorms.
“Some who went to all-male schools are very anxious around women,” Salinger explained. “Some of my peers have expressed frustration they were not prepared Jewishly for college. They missed telling them how they can get the most of out of college.”
Eisenberg said that in some instances college-age students, especially those from same-sex high schools, came from an environment in which it was felt that “students don’t have the maturity to handle the nuance” of certain issues, calling that “a missed opportunity.”
“Sometimes Judaic studies teachers have never had to navigate these challenges,” she said. “They went straight from one side of the desk to the other, from student to teacher.”