Empowering the Woman’s Voice

Galit Dadoun CohenShabbat Shira – Empowering the Woman’s Voice

Written by Cantor Galit Dadoun Cohen ’10, Adjunct Professor at HUC-JIR and Cantor at Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, NJ

ותקח מרים הנביאה אחות אהרן את התף בידה ותצאן כל הנשים אחריה בתפים ובמחלת ותען להם מרים שירו לה’ כי גאה גאה סוס ורכבו רמה בים.

Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took the drum in her hand and all the women followed her with drums and dancing. Miriam led them to “Sing to God for her great victory, horse and rider she cast in the sea.”

I remember the years I spent at Hebrew Union College nostalgically. Studying in a spinning rhythm, receiving the gift of Torah from great masters that filled me with incredible awe. I could barely handle all of it and spent those years taking copious notes praying that I’ll have time someday to go over all of them (maybe in retirement). I wanted to soak up this infinite knowledge of Judaism given to me through all senses. Awe followed with some understandable feelings of anxiety: “Do I really know anything? How will this work in the real world? Can I lead and hold people in their most holy and challenging times?”

Thanks to a few N’shot Chayil – wonder women such as Cantor Benjie Schiller, Cantor Josee Wolff, Cantor Faith Steinsnyder, Cantor Barbara Ostfeld, and many other wonderful professors, who not only taught me so well, they taught by holding and lifting me to believe and feel strength. If those women said I can do this, maybe I could.

During my first year, or maybe the first five, it’s all a blur, I worked hard to keep my head above water. I studied all the Makom’s minhagim religiously hoping to survive that day or that week. I began to note, especially among B’nai Mitzvah, a qualitative difference in those who identify as female vs. male. It’s a challenging time in one’s life. I can recall even my own struggles. The body transitions, voice changes, hormones raging, feelings are strong, and one grapples with identity, Jewishly and otherwise, trying to establish the idea of a “self” while the soul is constantly in flux.

Right in that chaos, Judaism prescribes a rite of passage to be welcomed into adulthood of chanting verses from an ancient scroll in a strange language that no one understands or speaks. Great idea!

I noted girls’ behaviors to be apologetic, more insecure, and more closed as they became older. Even if I knew her from my children’s choir to be a confident singer, this transition was a regression from everything I had seen, sometimes more introverted, or a complete regression in expression. I observed that these behaviors were present in women of all ages. Something happens during puberty, and it just doesn’t go away.

Shabbat Shira, parashat b’shalach, became an opportunity to highlight the verse that Debbie Friedman made into a hit song we all know. A glorious moment in our story of absolute ecstatic expression of joy and movement in freedom. I was also touched by Amos and Fania Oz’s book “Jews and words”. One chapter was dedicated to discussion on women’s leadership roles in the Tanach and then almost complete silence till the 19th century. What happened to the woman’s voice after the Tanach? We went from women leading through heroic and awesome deeds to women’s silence for thousands of years.

Growing up in Israel in a traditional somewhat observant Sephardic family, and having served in the Israeli army, I grew up believing I could accomplish anything if I worked hard, I wasn’t even aware that I wasn’t invited into Jewish expression outside of the kitchen.

While this is not the Jewish American reality, I felt an immediate need to amplify the woman’s voice in our community. In 2017, Shabbat Shira became a prayer experience to “Empower the woman’s voice”, the more I listened, the more stories I heard, and the more the idea grew and grew. The result of the first program was remarkable. Shabbat prayer became a carefully constructed worship experience led completely by women of all generations in our congregation from 5 to 95. They sang our Erev Shabbat liturgy, set to music written exclusively by women. They told personal stories that were intertwined as kavanot to the prayers. They shared journeys of their plight, struggles, and successes. At times, we sprinkled with poetic settings of Eshet Chayil and excerpts from Shir Hashirim to lift the feminine voice in our scriptures, and more recently we expanded to Rachel, Leah Goldberg, Stacy Zisook Robinson, and Maya Angelou.

This program sustained, has grown, and has become a staple of the B’nai Or Minhag. Participants became empowered to own their worship or felt deeply connected through sharing their stories. The congregation was moved to hear our women’s stories. I pray it continues to awaken more critical thinking about gender expectations that are ingrained in society and the need to continue to resist patriarchally enforced gender roles. Shabbat Shira gifted us the opportunity to revel in the endless talent, wisdom, and richness of our women. Through these thoughtful worship experiences, we hope we can think more creatively and freely.