There are about 100 women of all ages assembled in the sanctuary. No men are present, though occasionally one stops by the door to peek in the room before hurrying off. This is not a quiet and solemn gathering; there is an enormous amount of laughter, dancing, and singing. People are holding hands and have their arms around each other as they stand before the Torah.
This is definitely not what I'm used to.
"I wanted to turn the Shabbat service on its head," Rabbi Toba August says of Lev Eisha, A Creative Prayer Service for Women, held the first Shabbat of each month at Adat Shalom.
"There has traditionally been a very male-oriented, patriarchal emphasis in our services," August continues. " 'God is king' and 'Father' this or that. This is about waking people up and bringing out the feminine side."
August and songleader Cindy Paley have led Shabbat services at the popular Wagner Women's Weekend, and they were asked about six months ago to create something that would afford women the opportunity for a regular sense of spiritual renewal.
Paley, well-known for her singing, songleading and recordings of Jewish music, sees Lev Eisha ("A Woman's Heart") as a place for women to connect through song. "There's something about women's voices and singing together that allows for them to open up to each other. It is a totally different feeling than you can create when men are there. People don't feel as free, I guess. It's a more intimate kind of service."
The singing is definitely a significant part of the appeal for most of the women.
"I call this 'prayer in the key of women,' " says Mollie Wine. "I like the energy of the prayer with other women in a key in which I can express myself. Here, I can do what I want to do: I can sing, I can move, I can dance. I can cover my head with my tallis and not have someone say, 'You're doing it just like a man.' It's a feeling of renewal that draws me."
For August, the goal of the service is to tap into something unique. "We're aiming to fill a need that hasn't been filled. We want people to know there's a structure they can come to where they can be joyful, where they will learn, where they will grow, where they will pray and feel holiness -- all these important issues that will get people out of bed to come to shul instead of going to the mall."
The question, she adds, is, how do you replicate that phenomenon, the energy and excitement that will bring people not just to her synagogue, but to every synagogue?
Lev Eisha is certainly doing something right. There is a sense of excitement, as well as comfort, among the women gathered. They are anxious to talk about their experiences here.
Marilyn Weitz has been coming since the Lev Eisha service began in November. "I come because I needed something spiritual that my own temple does not give me," she says. "I find it uplifting and joyous. I wish it was every Saturday." Weitz was so impressed with August's ability to discuss Torah that she decided to study with the rabbi for her Bat Mitzvah -- at age 69.
August wants the women to be stimulated and to feel secure and comfortable enough to "let God in, feel God, and look inside," she says.
She starts the service this day by asking for the women to share things for which they feel grateful.
The responses are spontaneous:
"I'm grateful for the love of my sister."
"I'm thankful that my son is opening a gym."
"I'm thankful that my daughter will be here for Passover."
"I'm grateful that my mom and I can face my grandfather's illness together."
Some of the sharing brings laughter from the rest of the women; some touches people deeply. The young woman next to me is crying. I find out later that her mother has recently died.
My friend Janet is moved by the service, thinking about the loss of her own mother at a young age. She enjoys Lev Eisha's unique approach.
"I like the camaraderie with women and the comfort level," she says. "I think that women pray differently. The gender doesn't have to separate us, but it can define us. It's a piece of the puzzle. This service offers a chance for women to sing and have our voices heard. It's a re-embracing of something very ancient. It's a wonderful feeling, a feeling of community."
Two women standing nearby agree that having no men present makes a difference. The fact that they aren't here with spouses and aren't focusing on family, they say, allows them to open up as individual women and interact with others in their community.
And community is exactly what August and Paley hope to offer women again, on May 6, at 9:45 a.m. For more information, call (310) 475-4985.
Ellie Kahn is an oral historian, freelance writer and the owner of Living Legacies Family Histories in West L.A. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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