Ban on womens prayer groups swells their numbers

But instead of putting an end to the groups, the ban is resulting in wide media coverage, and the prayer groups are getting calls from women who have never before participated and are interested in doing so, said Bat Sheva Marcus, chair of the Women's Tefillah Network.

"In an ironic way, it has brought the issue to public attention," said Marcus, whose group provides information and support to 40 groups around the world.

Sharon Kalker, coordinator of the women's prayer group Nishmat Nashim, in the Hillcrest section of Queens, said that since the rabbinic ban was made public, she has received so many phone calls from women interested in attending the next meeting of the gathering that "I hope I have enough chairs."

Most are located in the New York metropolitan area, though women's tefillah groups are in places as far flung as Portland, Ore.; Berkeley; Jerusalem; and Australia.

Women's tefillah groups provide an alternative communal forum for women who are banned from ritual leadership roles in Orthodox synagogues. Jewish law prohibits men from hearing women's singing because it might distract them from their prayer and it does not allow women to be counted in a minyan.

As a result, Orthodox women gather on their own — in private homes and in synagogues — usually once a month on Shabbat or Rosh Chodesh, the first of each Jewish month, to pray, read from the Torah and celebrate girls' rites of passage, including baby namings for newborns and b'not mitzvah for adolescents.

They do not say those prayers, such as Kaddish, which, according to Orthodox Jewish law, require the presence of 10 men in a minyan.

In its resolution, the 90-member Queens rabbinical organization recognized "the sincere desire of many women to express their devotion" to God and "highly commends this feeling, provided it is translated into action in the proper direction."

The prayer groups and other recent practices, such as Orthodox women dancing with the Torah on Simchat Torah and reading from the Scroll of Esther on Purim, though, were banned because they were "breaking the boundaries of tradition."

The rabbinical council cited "disapproval of innovations" such as these moves by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik, who before their deaths were the leading modern Orthodox authorities. It also cited similar positions issued by five Yeshiva University deans in 1985, as well as by the Council of Young Israel Rabbis.

Fewer than half of the rabbinical group's members reportedly voted on the resolution at the meeting, which was attended by 47 rabbis. Several reportedly walked out before the vote. Almost all of those who remained voted for it, however. Two dissented and three abstained.

One member has resigned from the rabbinical council over the issue.

"The rabbis feel a concern over this, not so much about what's happening now, but because of what it could lead to," said Rabbi Manfred Gans, the spiritual leader of Congregation Machane Chodosh in Forest Hills, Queens. Gans supported the resolution.

Rabbi Yitzchak Sladowsky, the rabbinical council's executive vice president, declined to be interviewed, but said through his secretary that "this is really a local issue and we don't want to comment on it."

Rabbi Herschel Welcher, president of the Queens rabbinical council, did not return phone calls.

Longtime supporters and participants in women's prayer groups are angry about the ruling.

The rabbis who endorsed the resolution "don't think this is what nice girls do," said Blu Greenberg, an author, Orthodox feminist and founder of a women's tefillah group in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, N.Y.

"They became more aware of the growing strength of women's davening [prayer] groups. It's about fear, about their feeling threatened," said Greenberg, who helped organize an International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy in Manhattan recently.

The first tefillah groups were established by Orthodox women in 1978. And while they are now a well-established part of the modern Orthodox landscape, the Queens rabbis' effort is not the first attempt to stop them.

The women's tefillah groups initially won the sanction of Rabbi Avi Weiss, who leads the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, N.Y., and is well-known for his political activism, but few other Orthodox rabbis backed them.

In the early days, outside of a group that met in Weiss' synagogue, women's tefillah groups convened only in private homes.

Throughout the early 1980s, mainstream modern Orthodox rabbis and community leaders rejected women's tefillah groups for reasons ranging from the sociological to those rooted in Jewish law.

The matter came to a head in 1985, when five respected rabbinic leaders affiliated with Yeshiva University published a responsa, or halachic opinion, prohibiting all organized women's prayer groups, in any form.

Some Orthodox rabbis subscribed to their position. Others opposed it. Weiss published an analysis of his backing of the groups in a book titled "Women and Prayer."

The Women's Tefillah Network itself was organized as a result of that dispute, Marcus said.

Since then, the number of women's prayer groups has multiplied. In 1989, there were 16 such groups, ranging in size from 15 to 300 members, Marcus said. Last month, an additional four were established, bringing the total to 44.

Meanwhile, Marcus is concerned that the Queens resolution could influence the many Orthodox rabbis who have so far stood on the sidelines.

"I'm afraid that some rabbis who are on the fence might bend under some political pressure."