‘Just an object we use to connect to God’
At Beth El, women discuss their feelings about donning tefillin
Beth El president Nomi Colton-Max was among the women who wore tefillin at the Feb. 2 World Wide Wrap.
Photos by Johanna Ginsberg
February 6, 2014
Spurred by a recent spate of articles about girls laying tefillin at a New York-area Orthodox day school, Congregation Beth El in South Orange extended a specific invitation to women to join an annual event devoted to reinvigorating the practice.
On Feb. 2, Samantha Kaminsky of Maplewood and Nomi Colton-Max and Sharon Schwarz, both of South Orange, were among the women at the morning minyan coinciding with the Conservative movement’s “World Wide Wrap.”
The annual event was created by the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs 14 years ago to encourage men to don the leather boxes and straps that are worn on the head and arm during traditional morning weekday prayers.
Women were specifically invited to the Beth El event after Rabbi Francine Roston read and shared on Facebook an article about SAR High School in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, which last month began to allow two female students to wear tefillin, during a women’s daily prayer service. The principal’s decision set off a storm of commentary by proponents and opponents.
While it has become accepted in the Conservative movement for women to don tefillin, it remains a controversial practice in the Orthodox world, where many believe it is a violation of Halacha, Jewish law.
Kaminsky saw the post, and posted it with her own message to congregation president Colton-Max. “I said, How about a women’s wrap day?” she recalled in a conversation with NJJN. Another member of the congregation, Mike Schloff, responded, suggesting they join the men’s wrap date on Feb. 2.
“We decided to embrace the move away from being feminists and toward being egalitarian, and doing it all together,” said Kaminsky.
At the minyan, Kaminsky and Colton-Max chose to wear tefillin, Kaminsky for the second time in her life. Schwarz opted not to wear tefillin.
After the service, all three found that their approaches had plenty to do with the way they were raised Jewishly.
Colton-Max grew up in a Conservative synagogue in Ottawa and led services until she was 13, when shul custom prohibited her from doing so — not to mention donning tallit, kipa, or tefillin. But she said she has always found meaning in growing with changing rituals.
When her oldest son, Zach, now 14, was born, she started wearing a tallit. When it was time for him to become a bar mitzva and wear tefillin for the first time, she took on the mitzva as well. Her own mother, she said, “thought it was cool.”
Still she doesn’t feel entirely comfortable with the mitzva — perhaps because, with children and a busy household, she can’t always get to morning minyan. “It’s not second nature. I wish it was,” she said.
Colton-Max noted the dearth of women who wear them in her circle. “I wish more young women were doing this, so there would be more role models,” she said.
Kaminsky said her early interest in math and science meant she was often the only girl among boys, and often felt smaller and less entitled. Attending a summer high school program at the Technion in Israel at 15, she again found herself the only girl. On a visit to Masada, a group was donning tefillin, and her group joined them. ‘“Come on, Sam,’ someone shouted,” she recalled. “And someone put them on me. I had this overwhelming feeling of being so small — like I didn’t deserve to wear this ancient garb. It was so ancient, so big,” she said.
“Being a girl was part of it. I always had to work so hard at math and science. I felt like it always appeared to come so easily to the boys. And watching them in tefillin, I had the same feeling of not being worthy.”
Raised Reform, she was also less knowledgeable about the ritual than she would have liked. “I have always felt Jewishly illiterate,” she said. “After that, I ran away from tefillin.”
Kaminsky, now a supervisor of math teachers in the East Windsor regional school district, had thought about revisiting that tefillin experience for a while, now that she’s raising her children at a Conservative synagogue where she is an active member.
Kaminsky said she got over her hesitancy through a conversation with Beth El’s Rabbi Francine Roston.
“I was so worried it was going to take me over,” Kaminsky said, “and we talked, and I realized that tefillin are just an object we use to connect to God.”
Roston, Kaminsky said, compared wearing tefillin to cradling a baby, something she reiterated during the service. And Roston suggested that as she wrapped the strap around the arm seven times Kaminsky recite the names of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.
“That was really inspiring,” said Kaminsky.
Roston helped Kaminsky put the tefillin on and take them off several times, until she felt comfortable enough to do it herself. And when Kaminsky finally felt she had it, Roston asked her to teach the next person who came in and needed some help.
“It was beautiful,” said Kaminsky.
Schwarz, who came to the service with her husband and grandchildren, is among the morning minyan “regulars.” She declined the offer.
“Growing up, I never saw women put on tallit or tefillin. I feel I’m just not interested because I didn’t grow up with it,” she said.
Schwarz was raised in Philadelphia, attending a Conservative synagogue. She had a bat mitzva — on a Friday night — and was confirmed. When she goes up on the bima at Beth El, she always wears a kipa because it is the synagogue’s custom. But she otherwise does not cover her head. She recalls that her mother always wore a hat, although not all the women did.
Still, she doesn’t begrudge those on either side of the divide. When she attends the Orthodox synagogue she belongs to in Bradley Beach, where she and her husband have a second home, she wears nothing on her head.
“I don’t feel I need to. I don’t feel I’m being disrespectful to anyone by not doing it. And nobody has ever told me I should do it this way. It isn’t me to wear tefillin, or to wear a tallit and a kipa,” she said, “but I don’t mind seeing other people do it.”