Dr Katja Stuerzenhofecker is Lecturer in Gender Studies in Religion at the University of Manchester. She has a special interest in gender issues in contemporary Jewish and Christian practices and their relation to thought and tradition.
Since the start of the pandemic, the Jewish media have carried success stories of increases in female participation in Jewish learning and ritual, a contentious issue within and between Jewish movements. In many Orthodox communities, the religious expression of women and girls is not fully integrated into public services, and female-led rituals are not mainstream. Yet, Nomi Kaltmann writes in Tablet Magazine: “Instead of being stunted by the challenges and limitations due to the pandemic, women’s Orthodox groups have used their creativity and resilience to immediately plan for online learning and prayer opportunities for women online.” Do such positive claims stand up to evidence in the British context? Are they nuanced enough to tell the whole story? And what do participants make of the move online?
Prompted by the closure of synagogues in the first lockdown, two female-only online prayer groups started in the spring of 2020 under institutional auspices to celebrate Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the Hebrew month. They gather for half an hour to recite the traditional liturgy of Hallel, Hebrew for ‘praise’, when Rosh Chodesh falls on days when the use of electronic equipment is permitted by their Orthodox authorities. One group holds Zoom meetings with 100 – 200 participants led by 15 women and girls. The other event is live streamed with only the two prayer leaders being visible, sometimes joined by a family member. The recording is available on Facebook for a short period and receives several hundred views. Both events attract participants from across Britain and beyond at a time when visits and travel are very restricted. People lead the singing together remotely, they exchange greetings and write in where they are joining from. The Zoom meeting even allows people to have a chat – something to behold with 200 people!
The two events grew out of a concern to offer a regular ritual event aimed specifically at female members of two Orthodox communities during the pandemic. COVID safety measures make females’ marginal positioning in most Orthodox synagogues, often high up on a balcony with bad acoustics, even worse than before and increase their sense of distance. When synagogues are open with very limited spaces, there is a general feeling that males have priority.
Multiple observations, an online survey and eight interviews illustrate a complex range of needs and motivations.
The main finding is that both groups use this exceptional period to normalize active female ritual participation within the authorised repertoire in a public, institutional space. It is expressed by one participant thus: “The pandemic has acted as a catalyst to get people doing things that we could have been doing before.” She calls the Hallels an “act of compassion” because they are accessible and inclusive, a key theme running through many accounts. The organizers and the prayer leaders as well as the other participants benefit from this rare opportunity in an Orthodox setting to practice female ritual leadership and to experience it.
Online delivery of the Hallels is seen as a significant factor in drawing a much larger number of attendees than similar female-only events on local premises before the pandemic: a geographically limited local community might not include many like-minded women and girls. Virtual access is particularly important for members of small Jewish communities outside London where female-only prayer groups are very rare. Also, many regular attendees of the online Hallels couldn’t or didn’t attend any kind of ritual in synagogue or only occasionally in pre-pandemic times. They appreciate that online access removes physical barriers they face. Thus, the current urgency to move rituals online helps to address access issues that pre-date the pandemic and that continue into the future.
The virtual space also enables a diverse gathering across Jewish movements and observance levels that some participants find of added value. In both formats, all attendees are encouraged to use their prayer books and to sing along. Because Orthodox females are discouraged from singing aloud in mixed-sex prayer in order not to distract the males, many females lack the confidence that comes with practice. They like being ‘on mute’ while singing their hearts out. Additionally, the lack of control over virtual attendance places responsibility on Orthodox males to stay away instead of restricting females. The online prayer group thus offers religious ‘me time’ that many attendees experience as very uplifting especially under current stresses.
While there is clearly a demand for these two female-only online prayer groups beyond the pandemic, they are not for everybody. Some feel this online space is no substitute for being together. Looking to the after-times, the organizers’ aspiration to maintain critical mass suggests a hybrid format that combines the benefits of the physical and the virtual in order to address a wide range of access requirements.
Kaltmann, N. (2020). ‘Orthodox Women’s Groups Adapt to Pandemic Restrictions—and Thrive’, Tablet Magazine, https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/community/articles/orthodox-womens-groups-thrive-in-pandemic