Following news that the Modern Orthodox SAR High School is now allowing girls to wear tefillin during morning prayer, the principal of Ramaz, a similar institution, said he’d be happy to do the same — should anyone ask.
In December, the Riverdale co-ed yeshiva became what appears to be the first Orthodox school in North America to allow the practice, approving requests by two of its female students to wear tefillin during morning prayer.
The students both come from the Conservative movement, where the practice is common, and have been wearing tefillin since their bat mitzvah ceremonies, according to The Buzz, SAR’s student paper, which first reported the decision in an article last week.
“This is not the common practice in our community,” wrote SAR’s principal, Rabbi Tully Harcsztark via e-mail. “However, since there is basis in Halakha and these students have been committed to daily prayer with tefillin since their bat mitzvah, I felt it appropriate to create a space at SAR for tefilah that is meaningful for them.”
Currently the students wear the tefillin in a women’s minyan; it’s not yet clear whether they would be allowed to wear tefillin in a co-ed service, or whether other girls at the school would also be allowed to wear them, The Buzz reported.
As for Ramaz, this is the first time that the Upper East Side Modern Orthodox school has given the OK for girls to wear tefillin during the school’s co-ed morning prayers, but it’s not the first time that girls have been allowed to wear tefillin at the school, said Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, Ramaz’s principal.
In 2002, two female students, Shifra Mincer and Eliana Fishman, were given permission to phylacteries during a weekly women’s prayer session. But for daily prayer, they were excused from school services and prayed instead at Rabbi Lookstein’s synagogue, Mincer told The Jewish Week.
“It totally changed my experience because I wasn’t in Ramaz,” she said. “I took a lot more personal ownership of my davening. I davened on Sundays, all the time. I was definitely a lot more committed in general.”
And she didn’t mind not being allowed to wear the tefillin in the main sanctuary.
“Honestly, it was kind of relieving to not have to put on the teffilin in front of everyone,” Mincer said. “So many of my rabbis thought I was trying to make a statement, but I really wasn’t.
Allowing the students to wear tefillin at all-female services was a step beyond the previous time a female student asked to wear tefillin, in the early 1990s. Then, the school said no, but, like in Mincer’s case, allowed her to do her morning prayers before school at Kehilat Jeshrun.
Today, things would be different, Rabbi Lookstein said.
“If we were asked the question today — it’s 20 years later — we are in agreement that if a young woman wanted to put on tefillin and tallit, she could daven with us in our school minyan.”
Rabbi Lookstein doesn’t want to encourage a widespread adoption of the practice, but his experience years ago made him realize that if a girl is truly sincere, letting her wear tefillin in public could be a good thing.
“She would come from Westchester every morning at 7:30, instead of coming to Ramaz at 8 — she really put herself out,” he said.
Wearing tefillin — small boxes holding the Shema prayer that are wrapped around the head and arm during prayer — is mandatory for men. For women it falls under the category of time-bound practices, which are not required for women but not prohibited either. While the practice is increasingly popular for women to wear phylacteries, in Conservative synagogues, it’s controversial in the Orthodox world, where many see it as a violation of Jewish law.
It’s also extremely rare. Even the students at Yeshivat Maharat, a Modern Orthodox seminary for women clergy, opt not to wear tefillin.
“I think everyone understands that it is halachically permissible, but many of the [Maharat] women are traditional … so there are not a lot of models,” said Rabba Sara Hurwitz, Maharat’s dean.
Another issue is the serious nature of the decision. Because wearing tefillin is optional, many people believe women shouldn’t do it unless they are deeply sincere.
“I think the mitzvot of tefillin and tallit are very serious mitzvot,” Rabba Hurwitz said. “If I decide to take on those mitzvot, I would want to make sure that I could do it with consistency on a daily basis. For me, I’m still striving to get there.” n
Jewish Week Associate Editor Jonathan Mark contributed reporting.