Modern Orthodox high school in New York decides girls can wrap tefillin

MODERN: SAR High School in Riverdale, New York (above), has decided to allow girls to wear tefillin and tallit at Shacharit in an all-girls tefilah group. Two girls so far are doing so.

MODERN: SAR High School in Riverdale, New York (above), has decided to allow girls to wear tefillin and tallit at Shacharit in an all-girls tefilah group. Two girls so far are doing so.

By Noah Rothman, Staff Writer

SAR High School in Riverdale, New York, is now allowing girls to wrap tefillin during Shacharit, apparently becoming the first Modern Orthodox high school in the U.S. to do so.

Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, head of school at SAR’s high school, recently sent an email announcing the change, which applies to an all-girls prayer group.

Two girls were granted permission to wrap tefillin and wear a tallit at the school’s daily all-girls meeting.

“I have given permission to two female students… to put on tefillin during tefilah,” Rabbi Harcsztark wrote Dec. 8, in an e-mail to SAR faculty that was obtained by The Boiling Point.  “They do so every day and have not been permitted to do so in school until now.

“I believe that it is halachically permissible although it is a communally complicated issue.”

The change at SAR, a 500-student Modern Orthodox high school that is sometimes compared to Shalhevet for its religious orientation and focus on both Torah and General Studies, came shortly after Rabbi Segal’s decision in November to not allow a potential female applicant to wrap tefillin during Shacharit at school.

Instead, Rabbi Segal decided that girls who so desired could pray with tefillin and tallit at home and come to Shalhevet afterwards, skipping davening here.  Like Shalhevet, SAR held meetings with students to discuss the issue — but after the decision was made, not before.

“Rabbi Harcsztark held gradewide meetings addressing the reasoning for allowing the two girls to wrap tefillin,” said SAR senior Ricki Heicklen, in a telephone interview with The Boiling Point. “There were a handful of students who saw tefillin as something strongly correlated with the Conservative movement.”

“I strongly support the girls and I think it’s absurd that anybody would be upset about Rabbi Harcsztark’s decision,” Ricki added. “Regardless of my personal choices, I think everyone at SAR should be allowed to connect to Hashem in whatever way they find meaningful, as long as it falls within the scope of halacha, which this clearly does.”

Rabbi Segal applauded Rabbi Harcsztark, while saying Shalhevet and SAR are not the same.

“I respect Rabbi Harcsztark tremendously and am certain that he is making the decision that is best for his school community at this time,” said Rabbi Segal in an e-mail.

“It serves as another important data point for me, but school communities are different from one another and decisions are made within a local context – not a vacuum.”

SAR was one of several Modern Orthodox high schools surveyed by The Boiling Point during Shalhevet’s debate, which began when an eighth-grader at a Conservative day school asked whether she’d be able to keep wearing tallit and tefillin if she came to Shalhevet. At that time, none of them had formal policies allowing girls to wear tallit and tefillin.

Praying with tefillin — boxes containing the Shema that are wrapped around the head and arm — is commanded for boys and halachically permitted, though not required, for girls. Rabbis disagree as to whether minhag, or custom, means girls should not use them at all.

Last fall, SAR’s Rabbi Binyamin Krauss said his school did not have an official policy.

“I think I would need to process the question with the student, as well as my staff, before reaching a definitive conclusion,” said Rabbi Krauss, who heads SAR’s middle school.  “I would hope that we would be able to work something out to accommodate people who are looking for religious self-expression together with a commitment to halacha.”

In a telephone interview with The Boiling Point last week, Rabbi Krauss said that was still true.

“Our decision was consistent with what I wrote,” Rabbi Krauss said.

Rabbi Segal, meanwhile, came to a different conclusion for Shalhevet. In an e-mail to the community announcing his decision Nov. 14, he wrote:

“While there certainly exist legitimate halachik and rabbinic sources that suggest permitting the practice of women wearing tefillin (hence my willingness and desire to discuss the issue publicly and my encouraging her to wear tefilin at a synagogue), Shalhevet is a school that draws from a broad spectrum. In order to maintain that diversity, there will be times when something might be technically permitted but not wise to allow.”

Related story: Some variety in how Modern Orthodox schools see tefillin issue

Related story: Girls will not wear tefillin at Shalhevet, Rabbi Segal decides 

Related story: Complete text of Rabbi Segal’s decision regarding girls wearing tefillin at Shalhevet

Related story: Lively Town Hall debate explores whether girls should be allowed to wear tefillin at school