At Zemer Hazayit, a Modern Orthodox congregation in Efrat, when the Torah reading is finished, the scroll is passed from the men’s side to a woman who takes it through the women’s side. (photo from David Bollag)
Ten years ago, a group of people in a Modern Orthodox congregation in Efrat, a Gush Etzion settlement, decided they wanted women to be more involved in their synagogue services. The majority of the congregation was reluctant, however, so they set out to form a community of their own.
They consulted with Efrat’s chief rabbi, Shlomo Riskin, about the idea and, he said, “Listen, I don’t think it should be the only reason why you would start a new community – the position of women. Why don’t you also make it special in terms of prayer and make it kind of a song?” So, they named the community Zemer Hazayit (Song of the Olive). “There was strong contact with the head rabbi from the very beginning,” said Rabbi David Bollag, spiritual leader of Zemer Hazayit.
Bollag, originally from Switzerland, made aliyah 25 years ago. He has been with the community for the past eight years. He still flies home eight times a year to teach at two Swiss universities, the University of Zurich and the University of Lucerne.
“My field is Jewish philosophy, but I also teach some Jewish history, Bible, whatever they need in the institutes,” he said.
“Our congregation is Modern Orthodox. In Modern Orthodoxy, in almost every aspect of life, women are fully integrated and emancipated, and have almost the same role as men – socially, professionally, in politics and at home. They have the same rights, almost the same education possibilities.”
Ever since Zemer Hazayit opened its doors, the community has been growing. It has some 200 community members today. While this community is new to Efrat, there are many like it elsewhere.
“The process that is taking place is a slow development,” said Bollag. “More and more, laymen and rabbis realize the difference between normal life and religious life isn’t sitting well with most people.” While women are intellectually engaged at schools, workplaces and in politics, he said, “when it comes to religious life, they’re treated like second-class citizens, and they are just going to leave religion or consider it something primitive. For that reason, changes have to take place.”
While people see the need, they also understand that change takes time to be accepted. “That’s why the process is very slow, sometimes very painful – there’s a lot of opposition,” said Bollag.
The tensions and discussions are not only between their community and the rest of Efrat’s Modern Orthodox communities, but within Zemer Hazayit, as well.
“We definitely have people who are more progressive, who are interested in more changes, and others who are much less,” said Bollag. “Not only do we have to find the right balance between introducing new things and making sure we remain within the limits of Modern Orthodoxy, we also have to make sure we find the right balance that’s OK for everybody in our community.”
When Bollag was asked to be the community’s rabbi, one of the first things he wanted was to have an official meeting with members of other neighborhood synagogues. “I wanted to make sure to explain to them what we’re interested in doing, to make sure they would fully accept us,” he said. “They don’t have to agree with us, but I would like them to be accepting.”
Zemer Hazayit first gets Riskin’s blessing before implementing any proposed changes. So far, these changes have included splitting the prayer room in the middle from front to back, giving women equal access to the ark and, when the Torah reading is finished, the scroll is passed from the men’s side to a woman who takes it through the women’s side and then places it back in the ark.
“One of the main issues being discussed at the moment is whether or how women can read from the Torah,” said Bollag. “So, we have, about once in two months, a reading of the Torah by women, but just among women.”
At the moment, the opinion is that they cannot have women reading for men. “So, we separate for that reading – the women are in one place and the men in another,” said Bollag. “Women read for women. We usually also do that when there’s a bat mitzvah, as most of the girls are interested in reading Torah.
“Also, women say Kaddish – that goes without saying in our community – even if there is just a woman and no man.”
According to Bollag, the ordination of women in Reform synagogues has influenced Modern Orthodox congregations, as well, noting that these communities now will hire a woman as part of the discussion, including as a rabbi/spiritual leader.
“When they approached me about being the rabbi of this community, we made it very clear that it isn’t just me, but also my wife who will be very involved in leading our community,” said Bollag. “We also put a lot of emphasis on integrating children into the services as much as we can.”
Zemer Hazayit is currently raising funds to build a synagogue, as they have outgrown the room they have been using in a local school. For more information, visit buildzemerhazayit.org.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.