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Mira Sucharov


By Mira Sucharov, August 3, 2010

Free to Be You and Me, Marlo Thomas’ album that taught boys and girls that gender should be used to unite rather than divide, was a soundtrack to my childhood. Until mid-elementary school, I aspired to be a magician. That hardly any professional magicians were female did not faze me. Growing up, I was equally at home throwing a football and playing tennis-ball soccer on the frozen Manitoba tundra as I was composing songs on the piano and throwing ceramic pots on the wheel.

As a result, I have been rather gender-blind when it comes to public roles and activities. I tend to not be a bean counter, for instance, when it comes to professional positions or lay leadership placements. I don’t mind being the only woman around a boardroom table. I don’t want to hold my male colleagues’ gender against them just as I don’t want them to consider my womanhood inferior.

Which is why I am struck that my first brush with gender inequality has come from that most personal and emotional of affiliations: my own Jewish community.

A few years ago, a call was put out in Ottawa for volunteers to bring a Torah to visit infirm clients of a Jewish institution. I eagerly applied with my then-toddler daughter, thinking that her youthful energy could offer a bit of comfort to those beset by illness and immobility. But it was not to be. I was politely told that women need not apply. Apparently, the Torah did not welcome a woman’s touch. I wonder if any men ended up volunteering or whether the proposed program died a quiet death.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago when my synagogue circulated a call for volunteers to help lead parts of the High Holiday service. Having recently begun to re-engage with the taste and rhythms of tefillah, and craving the creative challenge of helping make the prayers meaningful for those on the other side of the bimah, I screwed up my courage and answered the call.

I was pleased with my volunteering instinct, until I read the reply. I could lead a few early morning prayers, if I wished, but as a woman, I could not fulfill the task requested. My congregation falls under a more liberal form of Judaism, which means that it is not subject to the strictest Orthodox interpretation. This particular stream of Judaism has been ordaining women rabbis since 1985.

My cheeks burning, I did a mental scan. Of all the synagogues in Ottawa which have either a building or a permanent rabbi, only one extends equal rights to women. In this day and age, I find that statistic baffling.

“My advice – find a new synagogue,” advised a friend from another shul when I shared my frustration.

This brief exchange led me to consider how members of communities choose to bear their dissatisfaction from time to time. Quitting just wouldn’t feel right to me. I tend to vote with my voice rather than with my feet.

For this reason, I identified with the gay men and women depicted in the powerful documentary Trembling Before God. These individuals struggled against all odds to be accepted by their Orthodox communities rather than find other circles that would be embracing of their identity. Leaving one community to find a better fit would be perfectly understandable. But trying to stay within one’s community and encourage acceptance of difference can help broaden the mission and raise awareness more swiftly.

I hope and expect that my congregation will accelerate along the path of equality, where women are counted as persons, rather than merely as wives.

While some congregations allow women to read from the Torah, the litmus test of formal Judaic equality is whether women are counted in a minyan, which, in turn, has implications for whether women are allowed to lead all parts of the service.

And for that reason I plan to stick with it, participating, conversing, grappling, and trying to understand from where the resistance stems. Change within organizations is often slowed by the silent majority who might otherwise welcome particular changes but who are stymied by apathy or lethargy. I hope to give voice to that silence.

Come the High Holidays, I plan to lead the few prayers that are open to me as a woman, even if they fall right at the beginning of the service when few fellow worshippers have yet arrived, and even if they are referred to in some liturgical explanations as “warm-up” prayers. I look forward to having my cantor educate me on the semantic and musical nuances that I may have otherwise missed, as we train together. But until my community accepts me as an equal, the experience will be bittersweet.

Mira Sucharov is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Carleton University.

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