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Reaching for Torah

In a nonegalitarian setting, Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel uses ingenuity to bring women closer to ritual life

by Julie G Fax

November 12, 1998 | 6:59 pm

Julia Celia Canhi Moreno remembers when 6-year-old Daniel would stand up at the Teva, the Ark, at Sephardic Temple, and reach for the Torah from his special foot bench.

Back then, she called him "Daniel the Prince." Today, the 90-year-old great-grandmother addresses him as Rabbi Bouskila, the all-grown-up leader of the synagogue she has been a part of for 53 years.

It is the 34-year-old rabbi who is now giving Moreno a boost as she reaches for the Torah.

Moreno is one of about 35 students in Bouskila's new adult bat mitzvah class at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel. She joins young Hebrew-school moms, career women and retirees.

"Many women in our community never had a bat mitzvah for the simple reason that, in the Sephardic community, there was no such thing," Bouskila says.

But even more than the formal bat mitzvah ceremony, what many women are missing is a basic Jewish education, says Bouskila.

While many in the class have spent decades running traditional Jewish households, most missed out on a formal education, and some don't even read Hebrew. "Every time I asked my grandfather for an explanation, he would say, 'You're a girl; you don't need to know,'" says Moreno, who grew up in Brooklyn with her Orthodox Turkish family.

Now, Moreno is finally getting some of those answers. The course that Bouskila designed is an intense overview of Jewish history, literature, Bible, law, philosophy and prayer. The class will also delve into Sephardic traditions through a study of the holidays and Shabbat.

"I thought it would be a good opportunity to increase the level of Jewish education in our synagogue by giving women an opportunity to come and study in a forum which would lead to a formal ceremony," Bouskila says.

The bat mitzvah ceremony will be held after the regular service on a Friday night this winter. The women will present readings in Tanach (Bible) and sing parts of the prayers and zemirot, songs for Shabbat. Each woman will be presented with a certificate and gifts of Jewish books.

In his six years at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood, Bouskila has done much to bring women closer to ritual life. That has taken some ingenuity, since the synagogue is nonegalitarian.

"We deal with the tensions of being a traditional Sephardic synagogue influenced by the modern world," Bouskila says. "We do our best to maintain tradition but accommodate the ideas of a modern society."

That is the philosophy Bouskila worked with when he decided to update how girls celebrated bat mitzvahs at the largest Sephardic synagogue on the West Coast.

Before he arrived, girls celebrated on Friday night by leading parts of the service and then chanting the next day's haftarah. While having any bat mitzvah ceremony was cutting-edge for a Sephardic congregation, Bouskila wanted to find something more relevant to the girls.

He eliminated the Friday-night haftarah chanting and instead helps the bat mitzvah girl prepare a portion of the Bible that has relevance to her. At Saturday-morning services, during the time when the rabbi usually delivers his sermon, the girl chants the portion she has prepared, then teaches it to the congregation, in addition to delivering a formal bat mitzvah address.

Bouskila faced some opposition from temple activists in introducing these innovations as well as others, such as giving women a Torah scroll to dance with on Simchat Torah.

"Clearly, [those who objected] felt that this meant that women would participate in the service, which is something we don't do," Bouskila says of the opposition to the adult bat mitzvah class. "But the moment they realized the ceremony is something that wouldn't impact the prayer service, but be independent of it, they had no objections."

Besides, Bouskila says, he views the ceremony as somewhat secondary to the educational aspect of the class, an idea many of his students also expressed.

"The bat mitzvah will be fun because of the camaraderie of women being together," says Sarah Treves, a past president of the sisterhood. "But the ceremony doesn't mean much. I'm going for the education."

Esther Cohen, a 58-year-old in the fine arts business, says that the class gives a clearer picture of the religion than what she was offered growing up.

"Many women for a long time wanted to know more or would like to ask questions, and sometimes they were put off not so much by clergy but by other people saying we can't do that, or you're not allowed," says Cohen. "We are finding that while you had a grandfather who said, 'You can't do that,' you can learn and you can really enjoy."


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