No longer content with standing in a crowd of female students for a chance to possibly kiss the Torah as the their male counterparts carry it during morning prayer, two high school students at Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy have asked the school to allow women to carry the Torah.
And while it appears that Lea Herzfeld, a junior, and Yakira Zimand, a senior, will not attain their goal, the request has led to a flood of Internet comments from people as far away from the Rockville school as Israel and Australia.
Joshua Levisohn, headmaster of the Orthodox school, said Thursday that he does not believe the girls’ request has enough support among students, parents and staff to enact the change. He said he was willing to reconsider if the Berman community become more supportive.
“As of now, our best understanding is that the active interest in making this change is quite limited, and there are quite a number of students who are against it,” Levisohn said, adding, “The students are taking midterms today so in terms of actual momentum, it is taking a pause.”
But the girls don’t believe their headmaster and principal, Rabbi Avi Levitt, are aware of all the support they have.
Most of the student male and female prayer leaders “support our cause,” said Lea.
At Levitt’s request, she and Yakira took “a random poll of 25 girls.” They learned that the majority of those students “didn’t have feelings one way or the other,” Lea said, adding that the findings were not indicative of the feelings of the 200 students in the Upper School.
The girls then decided to make their concerns public and put up their request on change.org. The petition states in part that, “We the undersigned are not opposed to students practicing their faith in a way that is meaningful to them. This does not disturb us and we support their right to carry the Torah.”
It also states, “We further support the right of students to discuss this issue with the board.”
As of Thursday afternoon, 455 people had signed their Internet petition.
Student Ori Bernstein also went to change.org, asking people to sign his petition opposing the “drastic change within our prayer.” That petition had 102 signatures Thursday afternoon.
But Levisohn said the number of signatures on either petition would have no influence on the school’s decision. “The change.org petitions are not related,” he said. “We are not taking a referendum. This is a local community decision and by local, I mean the school, not even the D.C. area.”
He also said the decision was not about whether Jewish law permits women to carry the Torah. “We are not taking a position that it is forbidden for women to hold the Torah or even for women to pass it around on the women’s side.”
Any decision to allow the female students to carry the Torah on Mondays and Thursdays, Torah reading days, will come from the Berman Academy community only, he said.
That is why the two girls decided to approach the school board with their request, Yakira said. They emailed the school board requesting a meeting, she said.
“We are starting to get a little frustrated. It is just taking a lot longer than it has to,” she said, pointing out to how infrequent their times to speak with the administration have been.
“No one was really helping us. The administration, they weren’t really supportive,” Lea added.
Said Yakira, “It wasn’t meant to be a big thing. It wasn’t meant to be this crazy thing,” adding the two girls just believed they would feel more spiritual if they were able to carry the Torah.
Meanwhile, said Yakira, who has attended the school since she was four years old, word has really spread and some teachers are even discussing it during class.
Lea, who started at the school as a sixth grader, is the daughter of Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, at Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue, who has helped publicize the girls’ efforts on his Facebook page.
“I support her very much,” Herzfeld said about his daughter. “I’m very proud of her.
At Ohev Sholom, woman are permitted to carry the Torah. Decisions like that tend to be made on a synagogue by synagogue basis, said Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman.
“We are just proud that Lea, as a member of our congregation, and her friend feel passionately about their religion. I think that’s just a great thing,” Balinsky Friedman said. “I think it’s great they want to engage spiritually.”
As word of the girls’ request became public, Levisohn wrote a letter to home to parents of the upper school. In the Jan. 11 letter, he wrote, “Our school is a community that represents a diverse student body, even within Modern Orthodoxy. Decisions about religious practice will delight some within the student and parent body and disappoint others. That is both the beauty and the challenge of coming together as a community.”
His letter noted that students on both sides of the issue have “expressed their points of view sincerely and earnestly and we respect and applaud all of our students for their willingness to speak out on behalf of positions that they find meaningful and important.”
But Levisohn stated in the letter, “it did not appear that very many students actively supported this proposal.”
As for her part, Lea went on Facebook to say that she is “so grateful for the Jewish and secular ideas” the school “has instilled in me.” She stressed that she turned to change.org not to “bash” the school but rather to see how much support there was for her request.
“I only hope the school sees the tremendous support received for women carrying the Torah and use it to make their decision.”