By Adina Gerwin
On one of the first crisp fall mornings of seventh grade, as I walked into prayer at my Jewish Day School, I noticed strange leather boxes hanging off my friend's arm.
I saw a teacher showing the boy how to put them on and remembered that they were tefillin or, in English, phylacteries. I will refer to them as tefillin as nobody that I have ever met, Jewish or not, has known what “phylacteries” means. Tefillin are black leather boxes containing Hebrew parchment scrolls. A set includes one for the head and one for the arm, each made up of a scroll, box, and strap. I had seen tefillin before, at synagogue, but had never seen a boy being asked to wear them at school. I knew this boy had just had his Bar Mitzvah, and that must have had something to do with it, but multiple girls had already had their Bat Mitzvahs and were never asked to wear tefillin. I was confused. Why are boys being forced to wear tefillin but girls are not? Isn't this school supposed to be egalitarian? On that particular morning, I did not say anything, but a deep question had formed.
I started doing research and began talking to different Rabbis about the history behind tefillin and why women at our school are allowed to wear them but never required to do so. What I found out is that the policies of making men wear tefillin stem from the Talmud, a book of Jewish law written between 200-600 CE — so roughly two millennia ago. In the Talmud, the Rabbis debated many different ritual prayer garments, including tefillin. The Rabbis agreed that men must wear tefillin during prayer, and women are exempted. Again I was confused: Why are the rules at my school the same as those decided in the Talmud? In that ancient society, equality and egalitarianism were not logical concepts that were taken seriously. Furthermore, in the period between 200 and 600 CE, gender roles were very pronounced and established. Judaism has evolved drastically over the past two millennia, so why are the policies at my school the same?
In Judaism today, there are three main denominations. Orthodox Jews are very observant and do not like altering any laws. Since, traditionally, women have never worn any ritual prayer garments, today, Orthodox women are not allowed to wear any prayer garments. In the Conservative movement, the official line is that Jewish law has changed and evolved; since the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, animal sacrifices have ceased, and women can take on traditionally male prayer roles. Reform Jews focus on the more ethical parts of Judaism and are less concerned about any ritual obligations; they have eliminated all gender distinctions.
At my school, most kids come from the Reform and Conservative movements and are less observant, while there are very few Orthodox kids. Among the 75 students in seventh grade, I do not know a single kid who wears tefillin on the weekend or anytime outside of school. After figuring all this out, I decided to speak to the middle school Rabbi. When I told him that the policies being enforced do not reflect the level of observance that most kids uphold, he told me he did not care. Over the next few months, I kept meeting with him and trying to find a compromise. I suggested boys could only be required to wear tefillin a few times a week, or maybe have a few days without tefillin every two weeks. Whenever I tried to bring something up or point out the system's flaws, he would dismiss it and say that he was not interested in working on a policy change. There are moments in your life when you are forced to realize which values are most important and decide how far you are willing to go to stand up for what you believe in. After being dismissed and silenced for the third or fourth time, I realized how important equality is to me and that I needed to figure out a different way to get my point across.
I began to wear tefillin myself and encouraged other girls to do the same. I talked to the religious teachers and asked one of the female teachers to start wearing tefillin. I explained to her how outdated the laws were and how unequal this rule was. The tefillin rules put an annoying and ridiculous divide between the two genders. What does it mean when guys are forced into these uncomfortable leather-bound boxes as a symbol of devotion to God while girls are not made to do anything at all? It discourages girls from taking on mitzvot like wearing tefillin because it makes them a masculine thing; by requiring only boys to wear tefillin, the school assigns a gender to these mitzvot. To this day, the teacher is still wearing tefillin. I spoke with other kids in my grade and across the entire middle school about bringing awareness to these inequalities. Most girls did not care about the unfairness of this policy. They were delighted to benefit and felt like wearing tefillin was an entirely masculine thing they should never attempt. The boys did not like wearing tefillin but did not think anything could be done about it. I was angry and annoyed.
Every day that I wore and observed boys forced to wear uncomfortable leather straps was one that I saw tradition being weaponized into a practice that, for these boys, was taking away the essence of what religion is: something that enriches your life. The daily experience of witnessing one uncomfortable tradition driving boys to complain and hate their faith was painful. Ultimately, I refused to experience this. The pain and anger fueled me not to be silent and talk to the Rabbi repeatedly, meet with the administration, and just try to teach my peers the value of equality and how Jewish tradition is important and can be beautiful.
In the wide world, this question of ritual obligation is a minor issue, but at my school, we are required to pray every day, and I believe that the gap between calling something egalitarian and the reality of treating boys and girls differently needs attention. I will never allow myself to be silenced and will continue to talk about this issue. Since that experience, I have continued to wear tefillin every single day, five days a week, and tried to encourage other girls to do the same; the issue is that at this age, most girls feel like tefillin are strictly masculine. I have also spoken with different boys about merely refusing to wear tefillin, but they are terrified about the administration and consequences. So I talked to multiple school administrators, including ones in the high school and other Rabbis, about changing this policy and the meanings of tradition, egalitarianism, and pluralism. Ultimately, I found out that my school has had this policy for over 20 years and that every administrator is completely terrified of controversy and change. I will refuse to be silent and always continue to fight, but at this point I have also accepted that these policies do not reflect the kind of Judaism I cherish and love.
Adina Gerwin is sixteen years old and lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City. She is a student at Abraham Joshua Heschel High School.