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Stamford teen wins national contest – and travels to Judaism’s holiest site

By Cindy Mindell

Alexandra Schwartz holds the Torah cover at the Kotel in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Alexandra Schwartz holds the Torah cover at the Kotel in the Old City of Jerusalem.

STAMFORD – Moving Traditions is a national organization that advocates for a more expansive view of gender in Jewish learning and practice. Earlier this month, the organization sent three American Jewish teenage girls, winners of the “One Moon, One Wall, One People” contest, to Israel to celebrate the Rosh Chodesh holiday with Women of the Wall in Jerusalem on Jan. 2. One of the winners was Alexandra Schwartz,

from Stamford, who was selected along with fellow contest winners Eliza Moss-Horwitz, 16, from Congregation B’nai Israel in Florence, Mass.; and Lucy Sattler, 15, from Beth Emet The Free Synagogue in Evanston, Ill.

The contest was inspired by Women of the Wall, a multi-denominational women’s prayer group whose mission is to achieve the right for women to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Kotel.

In the first round of the contest, Jewish teen girls and boys who participate in Moving Traditions’ programs showed their support for gender equality at the Western Wall through a creative Tweet-sized slogan. Of those, 20 semi-finalists were selected to submit personal videos about women’s rights to pray at the holy site. The three teens chosen for the trip are among the 3,000 girls who participate in Moving Traditions’ flagship program for middle school and high school girls, Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing!  Nearly 1,000 boys participate in Shevet Achim: The Brotherhood, Moving Traditions’ new program for teenage boys.

Schwartz, 13, hadn’t even heard about Women of the Wall until her mother, Elizabeth Ortiz-Schwartz, received an email describing the Moving Traditions contest. She has participated in Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing!, at Temple Sinai in Stamford since entering seventh grade and is also a member of Tichon Sinai, the synagogue’s Sunday-school program for eighth and ninth graders.

“I thought it would be interesting to spread the idea and awareness about Women of the Wall,” Schwartz says, and came up with the slogan, “Eq-wall-ity.”

Schwartz saw the trip not simply as a vacation, but as an opportunity to make a change and stand up for what is right. “Being in a Reform congregation, I had taken for granted my opportunity to pray with my brother and my father and to become a bat mitzvah,” she says. “However, at a holy site having such meaning for all Jews, I find it really hard to believe that women are excluded. As this old proverb from India says, ‘Women hold up half the sky.’ Praying alongside each other should not be a threat; on the contrary, it enhances Judaism.”

For this first-ever family trip to Israel, Schwartz was joined by her parents, younger brother, and paternal grandmother. They visited Tel Aviv and a kibbutz near the Golan Heights before arriving in Jerusalem on New Year’s Day.

On Jan. 2, the contest-winners met up with Moving Traditions’ board chair Sally Gottesman and executive director Deborah Meyer at the Kotel for the Rosh Chodesh service with Women of the Wall.

Entry to the Kotel plaza was delayed, Schwartz recalls, because the women were trying, unsuccessfully, to bring in a Torah scroll. Schwartz was handed a Torah cover and allowed through the security checkpoint, and the group was let in with prayer-books. Since May 2013, women have been legally permitted to wear tallitot at the Kotel, previously an arrestable offense. Schwartz and others wore tallitot and met a now 18-year-old girl who had been arrested for doing so before the legalization (along with Bloomfield rabbi Debra Cantor).

“I wondered, if the Kotel is the most important Jewish site, why aren’t women allowed to use a Torah in our holiest place?” Schwartz says.

The Rosh Chodesh service was a new experience for Schwartz: worshippers recited the prayers quickly and sang different melodies, and the prayer-book had no vowels. The contest-winners put notes into the Kotel and received a blessing from a woman praying there.

“I felt really lucky and grateful to be picked by the judges and to have the opportunity to make a change because I think a lot of kids had great ideas,” Schwartz says of her trip. “I think the experience will change my participation in the Rosh Hodesh group. I’m going to be more active and now I am more knowledgeable about women’s rights. I think it’s really good to spread that awareness and Rosh Hodesh is a good place to start.”

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