A village is built into the side of a steep hill. It’s a trek to get to the main road, which leads to the capital city. And so, a well meaning aid group build some steps. Success! No more scrambling down, just straight steps, and then a flatter walk or hitching a ride into town. Except. Except. The women of this village don’t go into town. And even after these brand new expensive steps are built they don’t use them. It seems like they would! The hill is steep, some houses are higher up than others. It’s tricky to climb to the village market, even trickier with a baby in arms or in a carrier.
And there’s the rub. The steps go straight down to the main road. They don’t have any landings for gathering, any twists to bring people to the market, to the friend who watches your baby, or the one who needs help with laundry. The desire paths the women had worn in their hillside village were far more useful than the paths the men requested. But nobody asked the women where they would have liked the steps to go.
The steps still would have reached the main road! The men could have still used them, but they would have served the women and children too.
Aid workers come in to a town that has been hit hard by civil war. Peace is holding now, thankfully, so they gather the village elders, their ranks thinned after the war, and ask them what they need. “A bridge!” The elders say immediately. We’ve been asking for a bridge for as long as we can remember. It’s dangerous to ford the river, but we need to cross to access the economic capital.
And by some miracle, the supplies move in pretty quickly. The kids tumble out of their houses to see the trucks pull up and some women follow them. One woman goes out to the aid workers and asks what they are building. A bridge! To cross the river! The woman looks at them stunned, and points to the small stream her children are jumping over. There’s been drought for five years. The river has dried to nothing. The road that the bridge was supposed to connect to was bombed two years ago. The men didn’t know. They’ve been at war. They haven’t lived here. What the village really needs is potable water.
I was senior in college trying to organize a screening of a movie. The admin at Hillel was insistent it was impossible. I couldn’t use the room at the time I wanted it, and the other rooms were too big/ too small. It was IMPOSSIBLE. Finally after rounds of back and forth on this I asked her WHY I couldn’t use the room for a movie screening. “Because the chairs have to face the screen for the movie, but then Mincha will be right after, and the chairs have to face the ark for Michna” she said. I took a beat. If I ask each person to turn his or her chair 90 degrees after the movie is over, can I host the movie screening? And the movie screening happened.
There’s a tradition that teaches that every Jew—even those who would not be born for centuries—was at Har Sinai. Does your Shul’s Shavuot programming reflect that? Can you look at the flyer for Shavuot and say “yup. The Torah is for EVERYONE” (or even, “the Torah is for everyone who goes to this shul.”)
If the people teaching and the people attending your Torah offerings on Shavuot do not match your community, then Torah in your community on the holiday celebrating Matan Torah is not accessible to all. Look at the flyers that are posted in your shul. Look at the people who show up to the classes. If it looks too male, too young, too child free, too old, too—non representative—then your shul does not prioritize Torah for all.
“But Leora,” you will say, and then you will offer a version of one of the following:
- We didn’t specifically ask men. We posted a general call for teachers and only men volunteered.
- We asked women to teach and they said no.
- Shavuot has to start after tzeit and then it’s already very late.
- The children are all sleeping when we are teaching Torah
- The children are too young/too old/too hard to entertain
- If we didn’t say yes to the same people who taught last year and the year before etc, then we wouldn’t be able to fill a whole night of learning.
- A lot of people in our shul don’t have the knowledge to teach a shiur
- We just asked the most knowledgeable/popular/loudest/easiest people, and they all just happened to be men/under the age of X/over the age of Y
- We are lay led. We didn’t have time to address this issue/to make alternative programs
- At least we managed to get a tikkun!
- We can’t control who comes! It’s open to all!
- We’re working on it! We’re hiring a woman/a youth director/an education director/a Rabbi. That’s how you know we care.
- We do care about women! We have a woman president/yoestzet/speaker scheduled for this summer/ women’s tefilah group
Did I miss anything? Did any of you ask the whole community where to build the steps? Did you build a bridge or safe water wells?
If your shul regularly was not getting a minyan would you say:
“We asked people to show up and they said no.”
“We post on the website that minyan is open to all”
“We don’t have anyone saying Kaddish right now so it’s not important.”
“Only women volunteered to come to shul and unfortunately we don’t count them.”
“We don’t have time to fix this problem.”
“We’re hiring a minyan coordinator next year.”
“We had a minyan on Rosh Hashana.”
Here’s the thing. Maybe your shul has had a tikkun for 100 years. That’s pretty impressive! The whole institution of Tikkun Leil Shavuot has only been around for 500 years.
But here’s the other thing: does your tikkun look the same as it did 100 years ago (the invention of the xerox machine and sefaria aside)? What percent of your shul are you serving with your 4 am shiur? What did you have to give up to make that happen?
It’s not Halacha to have shiurim all night. If your shul has to give up serving the whole community to serve a tiny slice, you should think about if it’s worth it. ALSO, if your shul has a shallow bench, is there another community you can pool resources with? You can probably learn Torah with them even if you can’t daven with them.
Did you ask your whole community what they wanted out of shavuot? Did you ask them when they WOULD be available to learn Torah? To teach? Did you ask if people would be interested in giving a lightning talk? In speaking on a panel? In discussing art works or poetry? Did you ask the women WHY they didn’t want to teach? Did you ask anyone what they would need to feel comfortable teaching or attending a class? Did you ask if anyone wanted help crafting a shiur? Did you suggest to anyone that you’d like to hear his personal reflections on Megillat Rut even if he can’t read Hebrew? Did you ask the parent what he wants his child to get out of the holiday? What she is planning on teaching at bedtime on Thursday night?
Did you consider that Torah learning can start before Yom tov? That your shul might benefit MORE from programming in the middle of the day than in the middle of the night?
Did you stop to wonder if the flyers you hang this year might convince more people to say no to teaching next year?
Did you ask your community what their values are, and does your shavuot programming truly reflect those values?
Did you build steps that look like every other staircase ever built? Did you consider turning the chairs 90 degrees? Did you build a bridge? A well?