My First Egalitarian Prayer by Binny Zupnick, Israel

“Want to come with us to the synagogue we’re praying at?”

“Okay.”

What seems at first glance like an innocuous and rote question and answer, this exchange has stuck with me over the years.

It was Shavuot[1] night, 2014, Jerusalem, Katamon, at my family friend’s with whom I was staying for the holiday.

Two other guests of the family asked me that question, “Want to come with us to the synagogue we’re praying at?” The synagogue they were praying at wasn’t the traditional Orthodox synagogue that I had been attending since childhood, but an egalitarian synagogue; a synagogue in which men and women pray together as equals.

Strangely, I didn’t have the qualms I’m used to feeling when breaking from my childhood norms. The guilt. The “what does this mean to my identity?” questions. I’ve had, and still have those, but not this time. I felt ready for this experience.

I went with them, unsure of what the prayers would look like. Would they be saying the same words I’m used to? Going through the same motions? Would I know what to do?I let the couple that took me lead the way as I walked into what I assumed would be a foreign-feeling room. They sat us down. I ended up at an aisle seat with the husband to my right.The room smelled familiar — it was the same smell of my synagogue back home, and that used bookstore in Jerusalem I love. Books were shoved into every possible hole in the wall.I then saw a woman wearing a prayer shawl head to the front of the room to start the evening prayers. I had never seen a woman wearing a prayer shawl. It was an amazing sight to see. I exhaled as I found I was easily able to follow along with the prayers. These prayers were the same I had been saying for years.

The tunes were the same tunes I’ve been saying for years.

I was extremely comfortable. Weirdly comfortable. I stood up and did a couple of slow turnarounds in my place to get a full picture of the room. There were about 40 people present, doing what people do when they go to synagogue.

A teenage boy walked in, making a beeline to greet his friends who were talking and laughing hushedly in the back. He went one by one and gave each friend big smiles and embraces.

But mostly there was praying. Men, women, and children. All together.

There was a small group of little boys and girls, running and giggling with each other across the room, bored by the prayers. The children. This is the moment when I began to tear up.

These were tears of happiness for these children. They will grow up thinking this is the norm in Israel! Equality and egalitarianism in their religious life won’t be questionable to them, but rather just the opposite. They’ll grow up thinking, “of course women can lead prayer!”

But these were also tears of sadness for the children. They will grow up thinking this is the norm in Israel, but will then face a hard truth. Equality and egalitarianism will be questioned everywhere in their religious life. They’ll grow up in a country where their childhood religious practices are not just not accepted, but where they are scorned, derided, and denied. Their rabbis won’t be able to marry them, they‘ll be told they aren’t religious by mainstream religious communities, yet they will also not be secular enough to fit into the secular Israeli communities. They won’t be able to comfortably pray at Jewish holy places in Israel. They will be stuck on the fringe of any community they decide to join. And they have no idea. For now, they run and giggle in synagogue, just like I did.

The singing was unlike anything I’ve heard before. The manly deep dirges of my childhood is still something I love, but this was different. This was beautiful. This was just what I was looking for. For the first time, I wasn’t hearing only manly dirges, but I was hearing an added feminine high.

The harmonies, the highs, the lows. As much as I wanted to observe the sights around me, I closed my eyes….

The prayer ended.

I went home, changed.

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[0] The synagogue  I attended is called Sod Siach:
 https://www.facebook.com/SodSiach/

[1] Jewish holiday celebrating the day the Jews received the Torah
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