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Sunday, April 20, 2014

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Beth David votes to become egalitarian

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Rabbi Philip Scheim

TORONTO — Members of Toronto’s Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am Congregation have voted overwhelmingly in favour of declaring the synagogue egalitarian, including counting women in minyanim and permitting women to lead all services.

Women have been permitted to have Torah honours at the Conservative synagogue for 12 years.

Only three people voted against the declaration, and two abstained, out of an estimated 100 to 150 congregants at the annual general meeting May 6.

The public declaration brings the shul’s practice in line with the majority of Conservative congregations worldwide, as well as with “a small but growing number” of modern Orthodox minyanim, Rabbi Philip Scheim, Beth David’s spiritual leader, said at the meeting.

He said halachic arguments against women’s ritual participation are “significantly weaker” than arguments permitting such involvements, and added that he would discuss the issue in more detail on Erev Shavuot, May 14.

Ettie Schimmer, Beth David’s outgoing president, told The CJN that the new policy distinguishes the shul, a 900-family congregation affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), from some of the other large Conservative congregations in the city.

Beth Tzedec Congregation, a former USCJ member, began counting women in the minyan two years ago, but the majority of other large Conservative congregations in the city remain traditional.

Beth Tikvah Synagogue, which left USCJ this past winter, became Torah egalitarian last year, but does not count women in a minyan.

Shaar Shalom Synagogue, a USCJ affiliate, remains traditional, as do Adath Israel Congregation and Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue, both of which left USCJ in 2008 to co-found the Canadian Council of Conservative Synagogues with Beth Tzedec and Beth Sholom Synagogue, which is also non-egalitarian.

Smaller USCJ affiliates Beit Rayim Synagogue, with 250 families, and B’nai Shalom Congregation of Halton-Peel, a 25-family congregation that meets in Oakville, are egalitarian.

Non-egalitarian synagogues reflect “a dynamic pluralism in Conservative Jewish life, where all views need not be our views,” Rabbi Scheim said.

Beth David will remain “not fully egalitarian” by restricting kohen and levi entitlements – including the first two aliyot, and the birkat kohanim (priestly blessing) – to men, he said. Also, he added, women will continue to have the choice of whether or not to wear a tallit, depending on their comfort level.

The Beth David vote reflected “a natural evolution” and formalized a practice that was quietly instituted at daily services over the past few years. The change came about because of the consistent presence in recent years of women saying Kaddish or davening on a daily or twice-daily basis, Rabbi Scheim said.

On days when there were fewer than 10 men to make up the traditional prayer quorum, those women “would be thrust into the role of nonentities, while the search for the ninth or 10th man unfolded,” the rabbi said. “I could no longer countenance the insult that was implicit in our not including these women in the quorum count.”

As well, he added in an impassioned speech, “in a day when women are so frequently oppressed, humiliated and abused in the name of our religion, the time for removal of barriers, where Halachah can permit such removal, has come. “

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