My Jewish identity was solidified in a basement in Waltham, Mass. It was not my bat mitzvah, my first engagement in Torah study, nor even my first sampling of a bagel with lox. It was the first time I donned tefillin.
For those of you who are thinking, “Modern Orthodox-girl-wearing-tefillin-wait-what?” well, it wasn’t a simple choice. The story is that I was spending my summer at the Brandeis Institute of Music and Art (BIMA), and I befriended two of the many inspirational people in the program: A Conservative rabbinical student and a girl my age who identified as traditional-egalitarian.
In the middle of a two-hour lunch break I decided I wanted them to teach me how to wear tefillin. It was a completely spontaneous decision — as if the tefillin were calling for me. (And to my tefillin teachers, thank you from the bottom of my heart and soul for going along with it.)
Together we went downstairs, sat down, read a Shulchan Aruch passage about tefillin and tallit katan (the vest-like undershirt that the tzitzit hang from) and then proceeded to unravel the logistics of actually praying with them. My arms felt different, wrapped in my dear friend’s tefillin. Taking a deep breath, I davened the first Shema I’ve ever really prayed. I felt a connection to the religion that I’d never had before; I looked down at my arm and I felt Jewish—simply, deeply, devotedly.
It’s with a bit of shame that I tell you that I am writing this article months after that day and it remains the only time I’ve ever worn tefillin. I’m going to be perfectly honest: I was afraid. All of my life, Modern Orthodoxy has dictated my every move — it still does. Tradition echoes through my home, my community, my parents’ expectations and my own expectations of myself. And “traditionally” — a religious girl does not, cannot, should not wear tefillin.
So it wasn’t until months after letting the memory settle that I realized what my tefillin really mean — why they were calling for me — and I finally mustered the courage to order a pair. That internal understanding came about when I realized that my tefillin are being “sponsored” by the three essential pillars of my Jewish identity: heritage, community and journey.
In this case, heritage means grandparents. My grandmother, a rebbetzin and teacher at a Conservative school in Miami, gave me birthday money when I turned 16. I thanked her and without forethought said, “Savta, this is going straight to my tefillin.” She was stunned for a moment then laughed and said, “Do your parents know about this?” Lucky for me, when I told them about my desire they were (as expected) extremely supportive.
The next chunk of money for my tefillin fund came from my Jewish community’s day camp, where I worked last summer. Working there was a very rewarding experience — I dearly love the kids of my community and teaching them about Judaism will always be a fond memory. Singing with them for Shabbat, dancing with them for Israel and simply appreciating one another’s company taught me a lot about what it means to be a part of a community; it seems very fitting to tie this enriching experience into my mitzvah.
The last bit of money came from an organization very dear to my heart: the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA). I was privileged to have my writing published in the Spring 2013 edition of The JOFA Journal. I was asked to write about an annual women’s Simchat Torah service in my community that I helped start and I can’t think of a better way to spend my earnings. JOFA is an enormous part of my Jewish journey and identity and I’m really glad it is a part of this one.
These pillars, upon which my soon-to-be-tefillin rest, shape what the mitzvah means to me. During that fateful summer day I looked down at my arms — still faintly imprinted with the tefillin marks — and felt a surge of Jewish pride. It was as if those marks, which quietly fade as the day passes, drift from one Jewish arm to the next, like we’re all connected. As if the lines travel from Jew to Jew, across oceans and deserts, to say hello and remind us of who we are.
We tend to use lines to distinguish ourselves — lines of denomination and differing ideology — but the lines of the tefillin keep us together. They do not alienate those who wear them from those who do not — they are symbolic. They bridge the gaps between the lines of our different communities and bring us together as one, big family — the Jewish people. With those lines on my arms, I felt a sense of Jewish pride pulse through my every vein.
Now, with tefillin ordered and on the way, I wait in eager anticipation for the upcoming heightening of my prayer experience. Wearing tefillin still frightens me a bit, on some level. But thanks to my heritage, my community and my support system, my tefillin mean that even though I pray daily as a community of one, wherever I am I’m among a community of thousands.
Whether the Modern Orthodox community decides to shame or alienate women who practice this mitzvah, my tefillin bind me closer to Judaism — and that’s a bond that will never fade.