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How TPM is including women in Orthodox services

The women of Ezras Nashim (Julieta Cervantes photo)

The Toronto Partnership Minyan (TPM) will be hosting a movie screening of the documentary 93Queen, a film that reflects the organization’s values of inclusion and empowerment, on Feb. 23 at the CSI Annex in Toronto.

TPM is a lay-led prayer group comprised of volunteers. Members occasionally meet for davening on Shabbat at four different locations throughout the city, referred to as North, Central, South and Deep South. The services are Orthodox, but they make a point to include women as much as possible, within the boundaries of halakhah.

That means, for example, that women can read from the Torah and lead some prayers, but do not count as part of a minyan and cannot lead prayers that require one. And no, that doesn’t mean TPM is egalitarian.

“We’re actually very against that word,” said Anna Urowitz-Freudenstein, vice-president of TPM. “The expression that we tend to go with is a halakhic expression, or some might say a meta halakhic expression, that is kevod ha’beriyot. So the idea is that we are all created by God, men and women equally.”

Urowitz-Freudenstein stressed that the differences between a TPM service and a more traditional Orthodox service are not arbitrary machinations designed to increase women’s inclusion, but are rabbinically endorsed implementations of kevod ha’beriyot.

She pointed to Shira Hadasha congregation in Jerusalem as an inspiration for these types of services that now exist around the world. She credits Rabbi Martin Lockshin, who taught Jewish studies at York University, with spearheading the effort to bring this type of prayer to Toronto.

“I do love being able to be involved in whatever I can be involved in while still staying within Orthodoxy as a woman. And I love that that’s true for my daughters, as well. And I love that my son can see women participating the same way as men, in areas that it’s allowed in,” Urowitz-Freudenstein said.

That inclusive spirit has attracted many daveners from around Toronto. Daniel Rende has attended services at three of the four TPM locations – first in Thornhill, Ont., where he grew up, then at the South location, when he moved to the area with his wife, and finally at the Deep South location, when the couple moved near there.

Rende argued that Torah and halakhah are timeless, but many of our current customs and practices feel stuck in the past. They are tethered not to halakhah, but to outdated societal beliefs from hundreds of years ago, Rende said.

“Attitudes towards women have changed since then, but we’re still using the same halakhahs. The evolution needs to occur within the parameters of halakhah, but we need to understand that the Shulchan Aruch, and later the Mishna Berura, was written through a lens that reflected that time.”


Prayer services aren’t the only aspect of Orthodox life that many TPM members believe could benefit from an injection of 21st-century female empowerment. The documentary 93Queen is about a group of Orthodox women in New York, who decide to create their own female volunteer ambulance corps called Ezras Nashim, as they felt uncomfortable calling the local all-male Hatzolah paramedic group.

“We felt that we really could relate to these women that started this group, because they were challenging the status quo of their own community. And we really admired their courage and their persistence in demanding progress from the community that they were from,” said Jenn Shuldiner, who helps co-ordinate programs for the Deep South location.

“At TPM, we’re also trying to make change within the modern Orthodox world by creating this space where women have more participatory roles within the traditional prayer service … and we’re also trying to propel a shift towards greater openness and acceptance and spirituality.”


Tickets to the screening of 93Queen are available at torontopartnershipminyan.com.