Girls will no longer carry Torah at junior-senior minyan

BP Photo By Emilie Benyowitz

Kalil Eden, Staff Writer, and Sarah Soroudi, Torah Editor

Shalhevet rabbis yesterday authorized a group of junior boys to lead the Beit Midrash minyan in Sephardic nusach on Mondays and Thursdays, and the boys indicated that girls would not be carrying the Torah.

In a move that came as a surprise after weeks of open debate over the issue, Judaic Studies Principal Rabbi Ari Leubitz said he wanted to allow a service that followed Sephardic ritual and customs, which are followed by about a third of Shalhevet students.

There are no Sephardic rabbis on the faculty, so he turned it over to four students who had been requesting it. They are Jojo Fallas, Adam Wannon, Jordan Banafsheha and Rony Shemtov.

“On Mondays and Thursdays they are authorized to run a Sephardic minyan.” Rabbi Leubitz told The Boiling Point.

Since the Torah is only taken out on Mondays and Thursdays, that means junior and senior girls will not have the opportunity to carry it in the upperclassmen minyan. Girls will continue to carry the Torah through the women’s section in the freshman-sophomore minyan, which meets in the Media Center.

“Women who want to join the minyan in the Media Center on Mondays and Thursdays may do so,” Rabbi Leubitz said.

Yesterday, the first day the boys were in charge, Jojo Fallas took the Torah down the aisle on the boys’ side of the mechitza and then handed it to Aviva Prins, who carried back up the aisle on the girls’ side. This had been the custom all year, though an increasing number of boys had been complaining about it.

When Jojo saw Aviva waiting to take the scroll, he hesitated for a moment and then passed it over. But he later said it was a mistake.

“Women were allowed to carry the Torah today because we did not feel that they were properly informed of what was going to happen,” Jojo said in an interview later. “The girls were supposed to be told that if they wanted to carry the Torah they should go do the other minyan, and frankly it is uncomfortable for everyone involved to ask them to do that.”

Senior Leah Katz, who has been outspoken in defense of girls’ right to carry it, thought the change was extreme.

“Let me get this straight,” Leah said. “They’re hijacking the entire upperclassmen minyan to satisfy their personal vendetta?

“If they want a Sephardic minyan where they would not be made uncomfortable by women carrying the Torah, they have my blessing,” she continued. “However, I really don’t think that their discomfort should be able to make this drastic change in the structure of the entire minyan.”

Rabbi Leubitz said changes could be made if the decision was protested sufficiently, but he has yet to see this.

This change is the latest in a series of administrative decisions regarding davening. Effective this year, students had only been offered the option of attending two minyans, grouped by grades. Leaders of previous years’ Yoga Minyan, Discussion Minyan and Basketball Minyan, for example, have been told to submit proposals to the Agenda Committee, which has been working with Rabbi Leubitz on a way to decide what will be required for approval.

Rabbi Leubitz has said that once approved, these so-called “experiential” minyans, which add experiences to davening in addition to prayer, would be permitted to operate two days per week.

But Sephardic prayer differs from usual Shalhevet davening primarily in the customs and tunes, or nusach, used by the leader.

“The Sephardic issue was something we wanted to expedite,” Rabbi Leubitz said. “It’s not an experiential minyan, it’s just a different nusach.”

Jojo Fallas wanted to clarify that the identity of the upperclass minyan Mondays and Thursdays is now Sephardic, having to do with a range of customs.

“The point of the minyan is not to take away women carrying the Torah,” Jojo said. “I think it was just easier to solve both issues with the same minyan.

“Personally, I have no problem with women carrying the Torah,” he added.

The issue of whether girls should carry the Torah at Shalhevet minyans was first raised at Town Hall Sept. 15, after members of the Agenda committee learned that some boys had been complaining about the practice.

In most Orthodox synagogues, the Torah stays on the men’s side of the mechitzah, or dividing wall, along with all the ritual functions and objects of the prayer service including tefillin, aliyot, and the leading of prayers and Kaddish.

This has been the tradition for centuries and is still the case in Haredi communities throughout the world, including in Los Angeles.

But in recent decades, most Modern Orthodox shuls, including the nearby Beth Jacob, B’nai David-Judea, and the Sephardic synagogue Nessach, bring the Torah through the women’s section. Only B’nai David allows women to carry it.

Proponents of women carrying the Torah say that there is no halachic, or legal, ruling against it.  Opponents say that the halacha (law) is unclear, and so it’s better not to make changes.

At Town Hall, some accused girls of wanting to carry the Torah just to prove their equality with men. Girls disagreed.

“I am a feminist, but I’m not doing it for feminist reasons,” said senior Deanna Grunfeld, who sometimes carried the Torah in the Bet Midrash minyan. “I actually feel a spiritual connection.”

Some boys who were against it said their reasons were religious, but others said that they found it distracting, and that it made them uncomfortable.

“My only problem is that it doesn’t follow our tradition, and I don’t think it’s right to stray away from traditions,” said Adam Wanon.

Agreed Michael Lenett, “It takes away from my davening experience. I have this spiritual connection, and when I see the girls carrying the Torah up their aisle, I lose it.”

Not all boys in the school, however, shared the same opinion.

“When I’m praying, I’m not concerned about anyone else, I’m just focusing on myself,” said freshman Alex Schwartz. “So if they want to carry the Torah, I think we should let them.”

All the teachers who spoke and at least half the students argued in favor of women carrying the Torah.

When the discussion was over, Agenda Chair Leona Fallas took an informal vote on whether a separate minyan could be established for those who wanted male-only carrying.  A strong majority voted yes.

But in the days that followed, the issue didn’t die. A handful of boys continued to press for a minyan where girls would not carry the Torah;  meanwhile, many of those same boys pressed for a separate Sephardic minyan. The current decision apparently meets both sets of concerns.

Related: New Sephardic minyan lets students feel at home 11/12/2011

VIDEO: Two problems solved at once as Sephardic minyan debuts 11/11/2011

Related: About 50 students attend school’s first Sephardic minyan 11/7/2011

EDITORIAL: On women and Torah, Shalhevet should lead  11/4/2011

Related: Shalhevet stands alone among Orthodox schools in letting girls carry Torah, survey finds 11/3/2011

Related: Tradition may rule, but law says girls may carry the Torah 11/3/2011

Related: Sephardic minyan approved; no changes to Ashkenazic minyans  10/31/2011

Meeting yesterday began process of minyan decisions, Rabbi Segal says 10-26-2011

Related: Blocking of girls from carrying Torah fails to materialize at first Sephardic-led junior-senior minyan 10/11/2011