The student-led community at Hillel is Orthodox, but unlike standard Orthodox congregations, it permits women to read from the Torah scroll during services and lead parts of religious services.
Growing up, Reena Zuckerman, class of ’23, loved to read from the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. She did it the first time at her bat mitzvah and continues still today.
At Brandeis, Zuckerman joined Shira Chadasha (“new song” in Hebrew). The student-led community at Hillel is Orthodox, but unlike standard Orthodox congregations, it permits women to read from the Torah scroll during services and lead parts of religious services.
“I’m definitely part of a generation of women who are able to do more during davening [praying] than in other generations,” Zuckerman said.
Students started Shira Chadasha in partnership with Brandeis Hillel in 2004. They were inspired by two similar congregations founded only a few years before, one in Jerusalem, the other in New York City.
They are all part of a loose network of what are referred to as partnership minyans, Orthodox worship communities that welcome a more expansive role for women than in standard Orthodox Judaism, which follows the proscriptions against female participation in services laid out in Jewish law.
Today, there are more than 80 partnership minyans around the world, including the one Zuckerman attended in Cambridge, Mass., growing up, Minyan Tehillah.
In addition to hosting Shira Chadasha, Brandeis Hillel also hosts services for Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism, all of which are egalitarian. There is also a standard Orthodox service at Hillel, where Jewish law is followed more strictly, and women’s roles are more limited.
Shira Chadasha offers Friday night and Shabbat afternoon or evening services once a month.
In addition to reading from the Torah and reciting the mourner’s prayer (kaddish), women can lead certain parts of the Friday night and Saturday services.
Portions of a service that under Jewish law require a minyan, a quorum of 10 adult men, are still only performed by men at Shira Chadasha.
Men and women are separated using a mechitzah, or divider, down the middle of the room. There’s no separation of the sexes during social gatherings outside services.
There are also Shira Chadasha-sponsored social gatherings and educational events.
Last year, due to COVID-19 restrictions, the group hosted a Zoom ice-breaker for students of all Jewish denominations to meet and a virtual Chanukah party featuring an online game of dreidel that raised money for charity.
Zuckerman, who serves on the board of Shira Chadasha as its vice president, is particularly moved by the community’s Kabbalat Shabbat, a service on Friday night that joyfully welcomes in the start of the Sabbath with the singing of psalms.
Among the psalms is Lechah Dodi, a hymn that greets the Sabbath queen, a Kabbalistic tradition that dates back to a 16th-century poet.
In fact, the Kabbalat Shabbats are so spirited, they attract non-Orthodox students.
Edward Friedman ’22 was raised Conservative but joined Shira Chadasha, he said, because of the “openness and passion that came from the members. You could tell people really cared.”
Friedman said that at first, he was taken aback by the division of sexes during services. But in time, he said he came to appreciate the mechitzah, a multicolor cloth of purple, blue and white, as enhancing the spirituality of the service.
“The mechitzah is really pretty,” he said. “It does not feel like it’s meant to isolate.”
As a sophomore, Friedman volunteered for the board and helped with marketing to attract more students.
Some students, like Matt Shapiro ’24, move back and forth between standard Orthodox services at Hillel and Shira Chadasha’s.
“I agree with a lot of Shira Chadasha’s beliefs about having more participation for women,” Shapiro said.
But he also grew up practicing standard Orthodox Judaism and likes that style of service as well.
“The abundance of options at Hillel lets people find the right fit,” Shapiro said. But in the end, he added, “we are part of the same community.”
Penny Schwartz is a journalist writing on Jewish subjects and the arts. First published by Brandeis University