One Shabbos morning last spring, I stepped out of Shacharis at Aish L.A. and headed a few doors down, to what used to be the Gordon’s Fish Market. I’d been hearing a lot of buzz about the Women’s Explanatory Service, but I’d initially dismissed it as “not for me.” After all, I could read Hebrew, and I had no problem keeping up with the usual Shabbos morning service.
What I discovered was community and feminine leadership. Aish’s Women’s Explanatory Service is 100% female led. It contains the highlights of a typical Shacharis – and nothing that would require a minyan – at a slower speed. Capable women help with pronunciation of Hebrew and offer explanations and divrei torah interspersed among the prayers.
Recently, I asked Rebecca Levi, who founded the service last December, how the Explanatory Service began. “I did not grow up frum or have the chance to attend a seminary. I wanted to learn to daven, but had heard from many frum people that it isn’t mandatory [for women]…I ran to women who had been in this religious community longer and asked if they would teach me.”
Levi discovered that many female BTs had stopped learning the fundamentals of prayer as soon as they had children. Many couldn’t read Hebrew, or read without comprehension. Turning to those who had grown up Orthodox, she learned that even those who understood the mechanics of prayer frequently lacked a deeper understanding or mature connection to the siddur.
“The Torah says do and then understand, but there ultimately has to be an understanding component,” Levi points out. Regardless of the area in which they were lacking, all these women expressed embarrassment.
Levi says that the tipping point came on Yom Kippur 2014/5775: “I was at Aish’s Explanatory Service for Yom Kippur and sat with a group of ladies…[I] was talking to them about how great it was to have short explanations of what we were about to say, how there was transliteration to the Hebrew so all levels could join, and also how when there was Hebrew, it was slower, and we read it together. ‘Why is this only on the High Holidays, and why can’t it be for the rest of our learning to daven?’ That Yom Kippur, I decided that I would work on making this happen!”
The immediate hurdle Levi had to overcome was her own lack of knowledge. First step: asking her husband, Justin, to teach her the basic structure of the morning service. Then she began to recruit female teachers.
“My first meeting was with Nathania Braum, Aviva Stepen, Ilana Tartarsky, and Menucha Cohen…I had to ask them questions like, ‘Where does the part where you cover your eyes go?’ ‘When can we talk to explain things for the silent prayers? If we can’t talk during, will we have to talk before?'”
In the week prior to each of the twice-monthly services, community women sign up to present short lessons on topics ranging from the Morning Blessings to the Weekly Portion. Occasionally, speakers come from outside the community; Rebbitzen Tzipporah Heller spoke during an L.A. visit, and Jackie Engel came the week of the Shabbos Project. “It started off pulling teeth to get the slots filled,” Levi reports. “But once people started coming and seeing that it’s not a place to be judged, but a place to inspire…it’s taken off.”
Cookie Richards often teaches during the Explanatory Service. “I was a little hesitant at first, because I’m a preschool teacher. I didn’t teach adults and didn’t know if I could. Rebecca suggested I go to the service and just watch. And I went and I REALLY liked what I saw…I had been davening every day since I was in preschool. I grew up in the day school system. But I hadn’t really grown in my davening to the level of a married woman, now in my twenties. I wanted to find a way to connect to the prayers as the person that I am now, as opposed to my six year old self.” Richards points to the shame-free, non-competitive environment as the key to this process. “This Rosh Hashanah was the first time that I really could break into the davening and focus on myself and not compare myself to how everyone else appeared to be davening.”
Is the service meeting its goals for those who didn’t know how to pray previously? Levi says she now prays daily, partly in Hebrew. Another frequent attendee, Jennifer Sulzbach, says, “I am able to pray independently even if I cannot follow along yet with what is going along in the service. It’s great because I don’t feel embarrassed because I’m…trying to figure out what’s going on or have to bother someone else (if there is actually another woman around) during their prayer time.”
Six months after my original visit, I regularly attend the Explanatory Service, and have even taught there. I’ve learned both from other women’s divrei torah and while preparing my own. The feeling of fellowship keeps bringing me back.
Aish HaTorah’s Women’s Explanatory Service meets every other week, at 10 a.m., now in the Seminar Room. Programs are expanding to a “Parsha and Painting” lecture and weeknight classes on the language of prayer.