Self vs Tradition

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Eliette Abécassis‘s latest novel, Sépharade, deals with what it means to be a young Sephardi woman in contemporary France.

Unlike her previous novels, this one is partly autobiographical. Esther Vital, a young Moroccan Jew who was born in Strasbourg, decides to marry Charles Tolédano – who is also of Moroccan Jewish descent – against her parents’ will

On the eve of the wedding, Esther discovers that the two families were linked in the past and that her union is doomed. She tries to understand what is happening to her and her investigation focuses on different characters in the novel. Through this quest for origins, Eliette Abécassis explores the history of Moroccan Jews with passion and erudition.

While telling the story of Esther Vidal, Eliette Abécassis also explores, with warmth, humor, and passion, the universal dilemma uniting the quest for individual identity with the desire for tradition. Through self-exploration Esther tries to make sense of her multiple identities. Jewish, Sephardi, French, and Alsatian; she feels traditional and modern. She is a loving daughter but wants to break free from her family.

Throughout the novel, Esther’s quest for a personal identity within a strong tradition strongly resonates with the reader’s own questioning.

Mesorah Project VI

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Thanks Jewish Side for sending this contribution to the Mesorah Project and for presenting an aspect of mesorah that is both earnest and open.

I believe teaching our children about Judaism is an important thing. But yet the beauty about passing down the mesorah from father to son, is that it is on a personal level. Every child has a different nature and therefore learns differently. What works for one child may not work for another. Therefore, in passing down the mesorah we have to understand our children’s personality and tailor the lesson so that they can understand it.

My little sister once said a brilliant line without even knowing it. It was shabbos day and I was playing a game of cards with her, while singing a song. Then my little sister says, “Jewish Side, stop singing!”. Meanwhile my older brother was singing too, so I asked my sister if she will tell my brother to stop singing too. She answered “No, He won’t listen, you listen so that’s why I told you to stop!”.

I’ve realized it works like that in chinuch too, where parents will discipline one child and not the other. It may seem unfair, but really it’s because the children have different natures and therefore practicing the same technique on two different children can have radically different results. A parent isn’t supposed to change a child’s nature but rather channel the character trait in a positive way.

I had been wondering why Hashem created teeth that don’t go in straight, why is it that many children need braces to fix their teeth? Then I realized, it’s the same concept. That maybe it can be a chinuch lesson, as though the teeth are children, and sometimes they don’t start off right, and might have “bad middos” but with proper chinnuch, and showing the right path, you can mold them to grow in straight again.

Now what do we teach our kids about Judaism? R’ Aharon Hersh Fried answers that in his article “Are our children too worldly?

I remember being taught in High School that “that the world out there is “dark, ominous, antagonistic to Torah values of ethics and morality, and generally void of values”. Then I came to college and was very surprised at how moral non-Jews can be. I took philosophy classes and was impressed at the questions non-Jews would come up with, and you were able to see they were good people too.

R’ Yaakov Kaminetzky was asked whether and how to teach evolution and he answered: “Pages in books should not be skipped, pasted together, or blacked out, as this only increases students’ curiosity about the subject”.

When I was taking a Jewish class in college, the professor brought up a controversial topic and asked me if I had learned the answer to it. I told her that I hadn’t learned about that topic in High School, and she said that she had learned it in school specifically so that she should know how to answer the people who have the question. As the Mishnah states: “Know what (you would answer a heretic,)” … you should know for yourself, so that your faith is strong in your heart, and you continue to strive daily at the gateway of Torah.

חנוך לנער על פי דרכו גם כי יזקין לא יסור ממנו (Educate a child in accordance with his ways, even when he grows older he will not stray from it.), Rav Hirsch explains that when we educate a child we must choose an approach which recognizes the “gam ki yazkin”; the life and the world the child will live in after he leaves our home. We must prepare him for dealing with this larger world.

R’ Hirsh is famous for his “Torah Im Derech Eretz” way of life. He explains that it is important for us to teach our children secular knowledge as well. Since Hashem gave knowledge to all people. If secular knowledge would not be taught, then instead of protecting the children, you will be doing the opposite. Children will believe they have been left in the dark and start to doubt all of Judaism.

R’ Moshe Feinstein says that when children are learning Gemara, they should be taught on a practical level. On how to apply it to life, so that the knowledge shouldn’t be compartmentalized, but rather Torah should be a part of their every day life. Where if faced with a situation, Torah should come to mind on how to proceed.

I was very lucky to attend a seminary where we had a Rabbi that taught us Halacha that pertained to every day life. Where you walked away from the lesson with interesting relevant information that you can apply to situations that came up. One interesting class was on Halachos of Gambling, and whether a Chinese auction is considered gambling.

We also had a class on “taamei Hamitzvos”, where we learned about the rationale of why we do certain mitzvos. In addition to learning from the sefer Hachnuch about the 613 mitzvos. Having these classes really meant a lot to me, helped me with my spirituality.

The Chazon Ish writes that it’s important for children to learn about Jewish History, since it gives them foundations for wisdom. If children were to learn Jewish History, they would have a greater appreciation for why certain practices would be uncalled for and wouldn’t label the Rabbi’s as “unthinking, or ignorant know-nothings”.

The Maharal says we have an obligation to know science. The Noda BiYehudah, his son R’ Shmuel as well as R’ Akiva Eiger all say to be careful to learn the language of the country we live in well and clearly, as clear language is a prerequisite to clear thinking.

I have always believed in “showing rather than hiding” to have the child know something is there and to teach them how to use it or not use it, rather than hiding it and the child finding it on their own and being put in danger.

Our children should be made aware of the existence of “low” and “high” culture in the world “out there.” They should be made aware that there are normative rules of propriety, of derech eretz, that no upstanding Gentile would violate.

When educating children it is important that they feel safe to ask questions. To not put them down for having questions, but rather let them ask it. Many times children who have questions and feel afraid to ask, get turned off of Judaism.

We must transmit Torah in a way that emphasizes the joy of life. Rebbe Moshe Feinstein writes that the reason many people in America who, in the early years of the twentieth century, sacrificed greatly in order to keep from desecrating the Shabbos, did not merit to see their children grow up as shomrei Shabbos was because though they conveyed to their children the required sacrifice of Shabbos, they failed to convey the joy and peace of mind that it brings. Torah learning and mitzvos that are not joyful cannot be transmitted to the next generation.

More contributions to the Mesorah Project can be found here.

Mesorah Project Round Up

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Thanks to Raizy, Rachel, Mrs. S., Shimshonit and Michael for having made this project a success through your wonderful contributions. It has been an honor to host your posts.

The painting above was done by Leora who kindly allowed me to use it to conclude this project. When I first saw it over a year ago I found it both beautiful and moving. I also find that it evokes one aspect of Mesorah: the passing on of Judaism from one generation to the next. You might enjoy reading what Leora wrote about her painting.

Mesorah Project I

Mesorah Project II

Mesorah Project III

Mesorah Project IV

Mesorah Project V

Mesorah Project V

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Thank you Michael for a contribution that is both very personal and scholarly.

I think the most important thing we can do is to inculcate in our children intellectual perspicacity and intellectual and moral courage. If there is one thing that I believe it imperative to transmit to them, and which I believe we will have failed as parents if we fail to inculcate in them (besides the obvious, viz. technical Torah observance and upstanding moral character), it is such a perspicacity and courage and independence of mind. We don’t have all the answers yet; the Torah is an ongoing challenge. But we must accept all of life’s challenges and all of modern scientific and worldly knowledge, and have the courage to admit the questions, and have the courage to explore daring solutions without looking over our shoulders. Even if the questions all remain unanswered, we must acknowledge the challenges posed, and not shy away. And we must not be fazed by charismatic leadership and authoritarian censure. Perhaps I am influenced by the fact that growing up, I had almost no friends in school, until high school. Putting aside the various explanations offered by my family and myself for this fact, I nevertheless learned very early on, approximately fourth grade, at the latest, that I was not beholden to anyone, and that if I knew I was right, and I knew I was following the truth, it mattered not what others said. And if the result was that I hadn’t a single solitary friend, so be it; life isn’t a popularity contest. Now, fourth-graders were not debating philosophy; my independence and iconoclasm were regarding far more petty and immature matters, but the principle remains the same, and I believe it has continued to serve me well in life. I recall someone (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in all probability) saying that in fact, perhaps the blood libels were a blessing in disguise. The whole world vilified us; could the whole world be errant in this? Perhaps they were right? But the blood libel prevented our acquiring Stockholm’s syndrome (this syndrome is also endemic in the present Israeli political leadership, but we have not the time to be detained by this); we knew that we were not drinking gentiles’ blood, and so we knew that the entire world could be wrong in not only this, but potentially, in every regard. Thus, the blood libels saved us from moral surrender to the majority. I believe I learned this lesson as a child, and I believe the Orthodox Jewish community must learn this lesson within its own ranks; all too often, we see ourselves as grasshoppers in the eyes of the Haredim; really, just as with the meraglim, we are merely projecting our own insecurities into the others’ eyes. We must have the courage to resist the “Grasshopper Effect” (See David Balint, “The “Grasshopper Effect” and Other Defects in Modern Orthodox Leadership”), and have the courage to stand up for what we believe is the truth.

Also, many of the criticisms made, that these studies and occupations will weaken faith in the Torah, seem to me to have basis only insofar as our educational systems are lacking. I myself was raised with a staunch Jewish weltanschauung by my non-Orthodox mother. (Besides not being Orthodox, my mother was actually raised as an Evangelical Christian!) My mother never taught me to keep halakhah, but all the same, she never let me wonder what our purpose in the world was as Jews. Never once did I ever doubt that my purpose in life was to be part of a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation”, to be a “light to the nations”, to engage in a perspicacious and audacious search for the truth, in order to enlighten all mankind and bring all man to accept His Kingship. Never did I doubt all this, and I was not even raised Orthodox; I did not even attend a Jewish day school! When I later became ritually observant, I received further education from an abridged Hirsch Humash, (Trumath Tzvi, ed. Rabbi Ephraim Oratz, Judaica Press, 1986.) but I found little if anything therein which contradicted that which my mother taught me. Today, secular studies and engagements do not faze me in the slightest bit, and I have never had to wonder whose yoke I am still bearing, first and foremost. Cannot our Orthodox day schools do as well as my non-Orthodox mother’s informal pedagogy did? I should shudder to think that our schools and rabbis are so poor that they inculcate Jewish weltanschauung less effectively than did my non-Orthodox Christian-raised mother. I might further add that though I have been Orthodox for approximately some five years, nevertheless, almost all my weltanschauung was either inculcated in me by my mother, or acquired by myself autodidactically. Though I presently learn in yeshiva, nevertheless, almost none of the material in this present essay, and almost none of my beliefs in general, are due to education; it is almost all self-taught, based on my own personal reading. Surely our Orthodox day schools can do as well as I have on my own, together with my mother’s inculcating her teachings in me as she did. (There are a few exceptions, a few things which my rabbis have taught me, and I will be the first to admit these; these especially include technical learning of Gemara, and the writings of Rav Kook. But by and large, most of my Jewish knowledge – especially the hashkafic – is all self-taught. The fact that I had to teach this all to myself, of course, paints a bleak picture of the present state of Orthodoxy. It is not for any vain reason that I have not learned from rabbis; the simple fact is that there are almost no rabbis today to teach me.)

According to Rabbi Hirsch (Collected Writings (New York/Jerusalem: Feldheim) vol 7 pp. 415-6, quoted in “Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch—Torah Leadership for Our Times”, by Rabbi Dr. Yehudah (Leo) Levi):

It would be most perverse and criminal of us to seek to instill in our children a contempt, based on ignorance and untruth, for everything that is not specifically Jewish, for all other human arts and sciences, in the belief that by inculcating our children with such a negative attitude … we could safeguard them from contacts with the scholarly and scientific endeavors of the rest of mankind….You will then see that your simple-minded calculations were just as criminal as they were perverse. Criminal, because they enlisted the help of untruth supposedly in order to protect the truth, and because you have thus departed from the path upon which your own Sages have preceded you and beckoned you to follow them. Perverse, because by so doing you have achieved precisely the opposite of what you wanted to accomplish… Your child will consequently begin to doubt all of Judaism which (so, at least, it must seem to him from your behavior) can exist only in the night and darkness of ignorance and which must close its eyes and the minds of its adherents to the light of all knowledge if it is not to perish.

Rabbi Yom Tov Schwarz, in his Einaim Lirot (trans. as Eyes to See, Urim Publications) devotes a chapter to the fact that the Jewish people, as the descendants of Avraham – the man who as the paradigmatic and foremost iconoclast smashed his generation’s idols and engaged in a perspicacious philosophical quest for the truth – is a nation of skeptics, who will not accept anything unless it is proven. Rabbi Schwarz assumes we should take honor in this fact; this is our essence as the Jewish people, in fact, says Rabbi Schwarz.

The rest of this submission can be found here.
By Michael from My Random Diatribes

Mesorah Project I

Mesorah Project II

Mesorah Project III

Mesorah Project IV

Mesorah Project IV

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Thank you Shimshonit for this eloquent and meaningful contribution.

My Jewish father notwithstanding, I am not technically a Jew by birth (if you accept Jewish law, as I do).  My father’s Judaism in some sense led me to water without letting me drink.

From the outside, it would seem that I had a luxury with regard to Judaism that born-Jews do not have: to choose to identify or not, to pursue it or not, to live it or to abandon it, with no feelings or baggage attached to those choices.

But the truth is that having a Jewish father, a warm, attentive extended Jewish family, and being told I was Jewish enabled Judaism to get its hooks in me.  From the time I was a child, I yearned for some sense of community, of belonging, of spiritual connection to God and the world.  I knew I would never find that in secular Americanism or Christianity (which appeared to me to have God uncomfortably confused with a hippy in a white dress), which left Judaism my most likely option.

It took me 30 years to convert under the auspices of the Orthodox world.  In the years leading up to my conversion, I was asked by relatives and friends why I was taking this (to some, extreme) step.  My answer then was that I wanted to continue the tradition of Judaism in my family.  I knew I wanted to marry a Jew and have Jewish children.  But for some those answers weren’t enough.  I was already Jewish, some would say.  Wasn’t Reform Judaism (i.e. THEIR Judaism) good enough for me?  Weren’t there enough other people out there passing on their Judaism to their children?  Why did I personally have to do this?  The world can’t stand Jews; why would I want to become one of them?  Those were good questions, and kept me thinking.

After many years of mulling over this question, I think I have come up with an answer.  Daniel Gordis published a book in 1997 entitled, Does the World Need the Jews?  I didn’t make it past the introduction (which was beautiful), but I knew then, as I do now, that the world needs the Jews.  It needs us because of our moral and ethical code that places responsibility for our own actions on ourselves rather than some third party in a red lycra suit.  It needs us because of our belief that everyone, not just the Jews, has a portion in the world to come (and hey, non-Jews only have to observe 7 laws, where Jews have 613).  It needs us because we believe that the same justice applies to everyone, not just the rich or the poor, the favored or the unfavored, the loved or the unloved.  It needs us because of our belief that everyone has a right to an education, a profession, a happy marriage, and meat and wine on the Sabbath table.  (Our word for “charity” is tzedakah, the root of which means “justice.”)  It needs us because in Judaism the worth of every single person is that of the entire universe.  And it needs us because more than anyone else, we deliver hope through our belief that each of us has the power to become a better person by working on ourselves, to make this world a better world for everyone, and that Hashem is pleased with us when we do these things.

It is very difficult to be Jewish.  We are a tiny minority in the world.  We have never been popular.  Whether one lives in Israel or in the Diaspora, to some extent our existence depends on our friends and what they think of us, and those friends are often fair-weather friends, willing to sacrifice us in their own interests.  If we’re religious and observe the dietary and Sabbath laws, we’re likely not only to confuse our non-Jewish friends, but to alienate secular Jews as well.  I grew up hearing that religious Jews were clannish and reclusive; now I know why they have this reputation.  The more religious you are, the more different you feel in Diaspora society, and the more alone.

And yet, as easy as it would have been, I could not jettison my Judaism.  It was the religion of my father’s family, but I had come to believe it was mine too.  The more I learned about it, the truer it seemed to me, being founded on honesty, fairness, learning and good deeds rather than simple faith, fairy stories, and chauvinism.  So what if the rest of the world thinks we’re nuts?  To cop out of keeping this religion alive and flourishing would be to give up The Good Fight.  It would mean accepting that what I believe to be right and good can be drowned out by numbers, even if those numbers are wrong.

So when all is said and done, for me to nurture my Judaism and pass it on to my children is to preserve hope—of connection with my father’s family, of a unique tradition and sense of justice, and of believe in myself and humankind.

By Shimshonit of shimshonit.wordpress.com

Mesorah Project I
Mesorah Project II
Mesorah Project III

Mesorah Project III

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Mesorah is usually translated as “Jewish tradition”, but its literal meaning is “transmission”.

Tractate Avot, which is devoted to Jewish ethical conduct, opens with a brief history lesson:

“Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly.”

We are told that each generation passed the Torah – both the Written Law and the Oral Law – on to the next generation.

Our commentaries wonder why Tractate Avot begins in this fashion.

One answer is that the act of transmitting the legacy is just as important as the legacy itself.

Jews around the world are familiar with the famous Biblical verse:

Torah tziva lanu Moshe morashah kehilat Yaakov.” (“The Torah that Moses commanded us is the heritage of the Congregation of Jacob.”) (Deuteronomy 33:4)

In an article written in honor of Yom HaAtzma’ut, Rav Yechiel Wasserman notes that this verse employs the word, “morashah” (heritage) rather than the more common, “yerushah” (inheritance).

Rav Wasserman cites Rabbenu Bechaye, who explains that yerushah refers to a gift which comes with no strings attached. In contrast, a morashah must be subsequently bequeathed to future generations.

As committed Jews, we are challenged with the responsibility of preserving, protecting, and safeguarding the Torah while simultaneously bequeathing it to the next generation.

May we be privileged to discover the proper means to transmit this legacy to our children in a way which is meaningful to them yet does not detract from our heritage.

American-Israeli blogger “Mrs. S.” (ourshiputzim.blogspot.com) made aliyah from the United States with her husband and kids eleven years ago.

Thanks Mrs.S. for this insightful contribution and for reminding us of our responsibility in the transmission of the Torah.

Mesorah Project I
Mesorah Project II

Mesorah Project II

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Thanks Rachel for contributing to the Mesorah Project in your unique way.

If I had read about this project this time last year, I would probably have thought that I had nothing to offer. There I was, at almost the very beginning of my conversion journey, knowing very little about what I was about to do, other than that I was totally driven towards the day when I would become a Jew and then be able to continue on my journey of constant learning and developing.

Indeed, I still describe myself as a sponge – constantly soaking up all things Jewish. But now, I can see that I am beginning to help others on their journey, whether they are Jewish from birth, or just embarking on their own conversion process. I have a historical knowledge that I have garnered from being a high school student. Studying as I did, modern world history, I have learned things that others have not had access to, for whatever reason. This knowledge, and the ability to absorb large amounts of detailed information (a skill I constantly hone through my work), has enabled me to put my theological learning into context and pass it on where I can.

To me, Judaism isn’t just about the rites and practices – what happens in the synagogue, the prayers we say, the blessings, the Torah, the Siddur – although of course they are absolutely fundamental. Judaism is also about the history of a people. How we have survived through the centuries, despite having to globetrot in order to save our lives. It is also about how we live on a day to day basis, in the world at large and outside our communities. People have noticed a change in me – how I treat others, my approach to charitable giving, the time I spend doing things not for me, but for others. I consider this ‘doing Judaism’ in a most positive way since if asked ‘why?’ it is the perfect opportunity to tell them what drives me to be different.

Perhaps this interpretation of mesorah isn’t the traditional approach – I must admit I am looking at it in a more secular way than some might. This is probably due to the fact that my Torah knowledge is relatively limited compared to many others and my skills at interpreting all the nuances therein are going to take a lot of brushing up, that’s for sure! But I am looking forward to a lifetime of learning, in that department.

So, I guess my viewpoint now is that most people have something to offer. You don’t need to be extremely learned, you don’t need to be born Jewish. You just need to embrace Judaism, enjoy its wonders and pass on your love for your faith and your tradition to the best of your ability. Even if what you know doesn’t fit with someone else’s understanding or theological viewpoint, you can at least enjoy the very Jewish discussions that will follow…

By Rachel of shavuatov.wordpress.com. Contributions are still welcome; just send them to me (ilanadavita@orange.fr).

Mesorah Project I

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Thanks Raizy for having been the first to respond to the Mesorah Project and with such a moving submission.

I am a 40 year old divorced mother of 3, living in New York and doing the best that I can. Long ago, I chose to forgo the lucrative paychecks that my education and connections could have afforded me. Instead, I chose to become a mother and a teacher. Here’s why.

Growing up as the child of Holocaust survivors is not an easy thing. There are silent shadows that lurk about the house, daring you to ask what they have seen. But you don’t ask, because you don’t really want to know. You see your father squint his eyes in disapproval when you fail to finish all the food on your plate. You hear him scream in the middle of the night as the horrific events of his past visit him again and again. You see your parents cry silent tears as they murmur the Yizkor prayer in shul. It seems to take them a long time to finish, perhaps because there are so many departed souls for them to pray for. And many of your childish questions go unanswered: “Daddy, what was it like when you lived in Europe? Why did you come to America? Why haven’t I ever seen any of your relatives?”

When you grow up that way, eventually you come to understand that you are more than simply a child. You, like your parents, are a survivor. And being a survivor carries with it an enormous amount of guilt, and a compulsion to prove that you are worthy of having been chosen.

And so you try your best to rebuild what was lost. You have children, and you teach them the traditions that are almost gone, and you become a teacher so that the message will reach even more children. You do the best you can to ingrain in them the same sense of responsibility that was ingrained in you: to learn the traditions of those who are gone, to embrace them and fulfill them and make them come alive once more. You are helped along this path by a whole community of Jews who, like you, are trying to justify their survival by passing on the ways of their fathers. Is it enough? Of course not. There is no way that you can ever bring back what was lost. But it’s all you have, so it’s what you do.

by Raizy of http://www.SuperRaizy.blogspot.com

It is not too late to take part in this project; feel free to send your own contribution.

Women and Shul

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I had intended to write a post about how French Jews living in mid-sized town spend Yom Kippur. However, as I thought I might write a few things that would not throw a favorable light on some of the people who attended the services, I decided against it.

A post by In the Pink – where she writes beautifully about her sons being given aliyot on Simchat Torah while she was watching – and Raizy‘s comment on the same post have prompted me to write about it but from a different perspective.

I had planned to go to Paris for Yom Kippur, stay with friends and go to shul with them. But circumstances decided otherwise and I davened in the shul of my tiny French community.

To understand what this means I need to explain that, on paper, French Judaism is 95% Orthodox. In fact, this is how it should be understood: 95% of French Jews attend Orthodox synagogues, which is completely different.

On the first evening I was a bit late arriving (on foot) at the synagogue but it didn’t really matter as the service had stopped due to a shortage of one man to have a minyan. Soon a young man arrived (by car); his father had contacted (phoned) him to tell him about the problem.

The next morning I had decided to spend as much time as possible in shul so I got there a little before half past nine. We had a minyan but only just which meant that the men could not live the synagogue until at least one more arrived. It also means that we spent all day counting and re-counting every time we reached a moment where a minyan is required.

At the end of the day, while we were enjoying a hot cup of coffee with food to break the fast, one of the men came to me and congratuated me for my “faithful attendance” and insisted that it couldn’t have been easy since there was only one other woman with me for most of the day and as we didn’t really count.

In the Pink post’s reminded me that we can’t be called for an alyah in an Orthodox synagogue and my Yom Kippur experience reminded me that I couldn’t be included in a minyan. Although I have read different things on the subject, I still can’t help thinking what a shame it is that women and girls can’t share in what takes place in the synagogue during services. I wish ways could be found to respect a tradition I respect and love without excluding half of the congregation.

Update: You can read more on the subject at SuperRaizy, Isramom , Nad-ned Nad-ned, Mom in Israel and Adena.