DC Voices for Religious Freedom

DC Voices for Religious Freedom: Cross-Community Solidarity with WoW

— Virginia Avniel Spatz, read more at http://songeveryday.wordpress.com/2010/08/13/dc-voices/

Hallel is my favorite prayer service. As an individual who cannot carry a tune in a satchel but loves to sing and loves the psalms, I find a Hallel [psalms 113-118] sung with gusto a great opportunity to join my off-key voice into a larger sound of praise.

So, as I watched video of Women of the Wall suffering through abuse for raising their voices in prayer on Rosh Hodesh Av and heard reports that a loud Hallel appeared to be a driving force behind the arrest of WoW Chair Anat Hoffman, I decided I would have to raise my voice…in Hallel for the new month, as a wake up call toward a more just new year and in solidarity with WoW.

Inspired by the inter-denominational crowd that turned out for a demonstration at the Israeli Embassy on July 22, organized by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, I contacted a small group of individuals to suggest a Rosh Hodesh Elul DC gathering in solidarity with WoW. Although my emails went out barely a week before Rosh Hodesh, response was immediate and positive, with a number of women indicating a similar impulse dampened by work or other constraints. We soon had a cross-denominational planning group and a terrific array of service leaders and leyners. Planners and participants came from Adas Israel Congregation (Conservative), DC Minyan (halachic egalitarian), Fabrangen Havurah (independent), Ohev Shalom (Orthodox), Temple Micah (Reform), Zoo Minyan (independent), and other groups. Adas Israel kindly served as host.

On August 11, the second day of Rosh Hodesh Elul, women and men from across the DC area gathered for what many have called “a beautiful and powerful service.” I deliberately stood in the front, so I would not be worrying about who was coming in or out; I heard a lovely swelling of female voices behind me and the occasional sound of a male voice from the side. (Although Adas Israel does not pray with a mechitza, this service was organized in format similar to services at the Kotel; see below). I am told that — despite our small, last-minute and haphazard planning effort — there were 35-40 women and, with some coming and going, about 10-12 men.

It was a strong show of solidarity with WoW and a great demonstration of cross-community cooperation. It was an important way to begin preparations for the new year…and, Hallel was loud enough to join (i.e., drown out) my voice in a harmonious chorus of praise!

Gender, Prayer and Religious Freedom

Free of the screaming and cursing experienced at the Kotel, the DC gathering was no less strengthened by participation of both men and women.

While we all know that the struggle for religious freedom is not a “women’s issue,” the presence of men at a service led by women creates halachic difficulties for some in our community. However, separating men and women or excluding men creates similar difficulties for others in the community. I believe all involved in the Rosh Hodesh Elul DC service were grateful for the patience and understanding exhibited by women and men in trying to create a prayer environment that works for all.

We still have much work to do. And, as several people commented on Rosh Hodesh: if we cannot find ways to make religious pluralism and cross-community prayer work in the much calmer environment of Washington, DC, what hope is there for the highly charged environment of Jerusalem?

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