Equal partners: social justice insights from the Orthodox partnership minyan movement
Founded initially as spaces for feminist, inclusive Orthodox communal prayer, the partnership minyan movement has evolved to address broader social justice concerns through a combination of community building and activism. Partnership minyanim now attract a diverse range of people, from those who have found formal prayer services alienating to those seeking a comfortable place to pray without having to stay silent about their commitment to social justice.
Partnership minyanim have a dual commitment to maintaining Orthodox halakhic (Jewish legal) standards and to the fullest possible inclusion of women in ritual leadership roles within Jewish law. Orthodox partnership minyan services typically require ten men to run a complete prayer service and maintain separate women’s and men’s sections. They also have an Orthodox prayer structure and typically use Orthodox prayer books. However, unlike many Orthodox synagogues, the partnership minyan model includes women in leadership roles during some parts of the service, including reading from the Torah.
Since 2002, when the first two known partnership minyanim were established in Jerusalem and New York City, partnership minyanim have become an international phenomenon. There are now dozens of partnership minyanim around the world, including two in Australia: Shira in Melbourne and Ohev Tzedek in Sydney. Shira is currently the only partnership minyan in Australia to hold services every Shabbat and on festivals.
Rabbinic and Jewish communal attention to the phenomenon of partnership minyanim has centred on debating the halakhic status of these services. Are they ‘Orthodox’? Are they ‘Orthodox enough’? These debates often obscure the diverse reasons why people seek out partnership minyanim in the first place or why they have felt unwelcome and uncomfortable in other arenas of communal religious life.
No single reason brings people to partnership minyanim. Those who belong to these communities are often increasingly motivated by a broader vision that embraces diversity, critical thinking, and social justice. It may be surprising to some people that some Orthodox partnership minyan attendees are Hasidic. Some identify as Modern Orthodox. Some are merely curious, whereas others describe partnership minyanim as the only space where they feel able to connect fully to Hashem (G!d). Despite the myth that partnership minyan members are somehow ‘less observant’ or ‘less committed’, detractors may be surprised to learn that many view partnership minyanim as a deeper, more rigorous expression of their spiritual values. Many regulars at non-partnership weekday and Shabbat services find that partnership minyanim offer unique opportunities for community building and social justice activism.
In his 2008 research on the development of partnership minyanim, scholar William Kaplowitz found that their growth did not parallel the population size of Orthodox communities, with some Orthodox partnership minyanim located in cities with tiny Orthodox communities and no Orthodox partnership minyanim in some cities with large Orthodox populations. Kaplowitz concluded that Orthodox partnership minyanim constitute a culture.
Based on responses from multiple people who have come to Orthodox partnership minyanim, it seems this culture contains elements that speak to a wide variety of Jews who feel that their needs are not met by mainstream rabbinic leadership and mainstream synagogue culture. This issue of established religious organisations not meeting contemporary Jewish needs has been discussed frequently in the Australian Jewish News and elsewhere, with one Fairfax article citing Rabbi Dovid Gutnick regarding the challenge to find a Judaism that appeals to modern Jews. Rabbi Gutnick stressed the need for congregations to create a sense of community and make people feel comfortable. As Chabad Malvern Rabbi Shimshon Yurkowicz noted in that article: “Why would you go to a place where you feel uncomfortable?”
Whereas the initial focus of the Orthodox partnership minyan movement was to expand women’s religious leadership opportunities, the movement has since blossomed into one that is increasingly aware of intersectional needs—that is, the needs of people with more than one life experience or identity that has been marginalised, and a culture that promotes greater understanding of the unique insights and challenges that these complex experiences entail.
For example, multiple partnership minyanim have provided a third section for non-binary people, with a stated policy that people should sit in the section that aligns with their gender identity, rather than the category assigned to them at birth. These policies allow people who are typically excluded from mainstream Orthodox congregations to experience a comfortable place to attend a prayer service. Given the inability of establishment synagogues to provide any viable option for non-binary people, vilification of the partnership minyan model seems misguided at best and mean-spirited at worst.
I have received numerous reports of how misgendering in Jewish communal environments and denial of synagogue seating in a gender-affirming section caused people deep distress. In many of these cases, people have left the Jewish community entirely or even killed themselves. Research has documented that social exclusion and discrimination are preventable suicide risk factors for people of trans and/or non-binary experience. Although many people are unaware of the importance of gender-affirming Jewish communal spaces, this need becomes clearer when one understands misgendering as a profoundly dehumanising act that does not belong in ostensibly ‘spiritual’ environments—places where people seek communal nourishment to shelter them from daily abuse in the wider world.
Multiple partnership minyanim leaders have told me that they created safe space where people who had been abused by intimate partners—often their former husbands—could pray in a place where their abuser was not welcome. Although many synagogues have adopted ‘zero tolerance’ policies regarding bullying and abuse for regulatory compliance, multiple women have reported that Orthodox partnership minyanim were the only spaces willing to ban their abusers from attending and thus ensure that the prayer space remained safe. The Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse revealed widespread disregard for such policies by multiple rabbinic and lay community leaders. It is regrettable that this disregard for people targeted for abuse persists in responses from multiple rabbis who have denied women fleeing spousal abuse a safe place to pray. By permitting their abusers to attend, these rabbis have failed to prevent abusive spouses from continuing their stalking and harassment in synagogue environments.
The Radziner Rebbe, Gershon Henokh Leiner of Radzin ZT”L (zecher tzadik livracha—the memory of the righteous is a blessing), held that a truly spiritual person could not stick solely to convention, rote prayers or observances, or the mainstream path. In order to truly reach one’s highest spiritual potential, a person must be willing to go to the margins of society and journey to the borders of known territory to explore places at the frontiers of religious society. Orthodox partnership minyanim represent such striving, even if the Radziner Rebbe may neither have foreseen nor supported this international development. Many Jewish people are striving for deep connection and meaning, a place where they can seek toward their fullest spiritual potential through being active participants and lay leaders in Jewish communal and religious life. Amid the stark polemics and reprisals from some Orthodox establishments, an increasing number of people feel they are moving closer to achieving greater connection to Judaism and achieving their spiritual potential through engagement with Orthodox partnership minyanim.
Beyond the benefits that partnership minyanim can bring to personal prayer, what can they offer to people who are neither Orthodox nor interested in personal prayer? In Temple times, we brought both communal and personal offerings to serve Hashem. Both were considered essential aspects of Jewish practice, in recognition that some achievements are only possible in collaboration with each other. Regarding the construction of the Mishkan (our movable Sanctuary during our wanderings in the wilderness), the Torah tells us that this construction demonstrated the heights of earthly human achievement and that this process required contributions from every person in the community, including children. Like the Mishkan, partnership minyan culture highlights the innate spirituality of community building, the idea that all of us must come together to share our resources and thus to make positive change in the world. Like the Mishkan, partnership minyanim can be a spiritual oasis for those who need a safe space while they continue to wander through the wilderness of exclusion and discrimination elsewhere in the Jewish community and in the wider world.
Whether one is Orthodox or not, whether one is supportive of the partnership minyan model or not, Orthodox partnership minyanim around the world are examples of how we can truly make a broad spectrum of previously marginalised people feel passionate about being active participants in Jewish communities. As Ben Zoma expounds on Psalm 119 in Pirkei Avot: “Who is wise? The person who learns from all people.” So, too, the phenomenon of partnership minyanim and the experiences of their attendees have much to teach us all.
Image captions and credits:
- Image of the mechitza, the curtain dividing the women’s section (right) and men’s section (left) at the bimah where the Torah is read at Shira, the Melbourne’s partnership minyan that has been holding services for 12 years. Image source: Shira website http://www.shira.org.au/photos/
- Ohev Tzedek logo.
- Shira’s commitment to social justice means establishing peaceful connections with people from different faiths and promoting mutual understanding and respect. Image source: Shira website.
- The non-binary section at Ohev Tzedek, Sydney. Image credit: Gavi Ansara.
- Men praying in the men’s section at Shira in Melbourne. The bimah where the Torah is read is placed half in the women’s section (right) and half in the men’s section (left) for equal access. Image source: Shira website.