When Tova Hartman moved from her native Montreal to Jerusalem as a teenager, she was distressed, in her family's new Orthodox synagogue, by having to worship separately from men and keep her distance from the scrolls of the Torah. At her father's more modern Orthodox synagogue in Canada, she had felt at home. But exposed to a more traditional form of Orthodox worship - in which women don't count as part of the minyan, or quorum, needed to conduct services - Hartman felt alienated.
In response, in 2001 Hartman founded Shira Hadasha ("new song"), a controversial Orthodox congregation in which women not only handle and read from the Torah, but can lead mixed-sex services. There is a mehitza, or barrier, between men and women, but it is transparent and does not obstruct anyone's view. Hartman, 51, a professor of education and gender studies, calls it, in a piece from the magazine Moment, “an attempt of a group of men and women to give the system and the tradition another chance." While such equality is fairly standard for Reform and Conservative congregations, the fact that Shira Hadasha sticks to a traditional Orthodox mode of worship in other respects has prompted criticism from Orthodox communities in Israel and abroad.
Part of the alarm comes from the congregation's size and success: it counts several hundred members, half of whom are men. Says Hartman in the article, “We are not interested in being a women’s group that is separate from the community...People said you’re never going to be able to get men to come and I’d say, ‘You really underestimate men.’” But despite the debate her congregation has generated, Hartman sees the discussion as an important part of an ever-evolving Jewish tradition that is rooted in argument, reinterpretation and dissent. Some of the objection to the shul is not so much its progressive practices, but that it should call itself Orthodox. But Hartman still regards it as her faith: just one that has room for an evolution that feels to her organic and in keeping with its tenets. As she says, “The dignity of the people was given at Sinai and this is a very deep idea in the Jewish tradition...That women deserve this dignity is something that modernity gave to the world. Feminism enhances the Jewish tradition. It is not only about women. It is about how we as a community of men and women stand before God.”