It all started on a Friday morning, as I was doing my last-minute shopping for Shabbat.
My phone rang. On the other end of the line, a woman introduced herself as Debby from Mount Freedom Jewish Center in Randolph. She invited me to come speak to her congregation during a Shabbat service as the new-ish senior shlicha for Greater MetroWest.
When I hung up the phone, I felt as if I was walking in the clouds. The moment is here! With all the covid-related challenges of gathering face-to-face, I was finally going to address members of the greater MetroWest community in person! From that second, my mind began racing.
What would I talk about? Where would I begin? In the following weeks, I would wake up thinking of an idea and going to sleep developing it (and doing plenty of other things in between — no worries!).
And then the big day arrived — December 18. Looking through my closet, picking out the right outfit for my special talk, drinking my coffee and heading out the door to Mount Freedom. During the 26-minute drive (thank you, Waze), I was talking to myself, making last minute changes to my speech. When I arrived in the parking lot, I was clear and certain of the things that I wanted to share, and I thought that I was ready for the experience ahead of me. (Little did I know…)
I walked into the synagogue, which felt very Israeli in those first moments: men sitting on one side and women on the other, Aron Hakodesh (Holy Ark) and bima (stage). And just as I started getting comfortable, I was unexpectedly invited to join a second room. Curious, I jumped up from my seat and moved to the other room.
A beautiful 15-year-old girl was reading from the Torah. Her mom was by her side, leading the whole service, and the women in the room were listening and supporting this special moment. As I was trying to digest what was happening around me, I noticed that the room became silent. And when I looked around trying to understand why we had stopped, I realized that all eyes were on me.
I was invited for an aliyah for the first time in my life.
The festive atmosphere, my curiosity, the look on the face of the girl reading from the Torah, the women’s bond that was felt so strongly in that room — all of these made me get up. And there I was, with the Torah in front of me and two women by my side, guiding me through as I walked into what felt like an imaginary bubble. All of the things that I had planned to talk about that morning — my childhood in Tzfat, the old city, my grandparents, Lag Ba’omer celebrations with the Torah — all came rushing back in that moment, in New Jersey, in an Orthodox synagogue where a 15-year-old girl was reading from the Torah.
We went back to the big hall for the haftara (reading from the Prophets), and as I was gathering my thoughts about what just happened, someone handed me the Torah. I couldn’t stop my tears, tears of joy, of hope and appreciation, tears of closure and new beginnings. The girl that I was going to talk about growing up in Tzfat would never have dreamed that this would be possible, that times are changing and that nowadays women and young girls can read from the Torah. That little girl would never have imagined that all those times when she visited the synagogue in her childhood but was told to only look from afar are over.
On that morning, I spoke about Israel from my personal stories and experiences. When I got off the bima, people came to thank me, even though there were not enough words in the world to describe the meaningful experience they had just given me. How free I felt at Mount Freedom that day!
As a side note, some of the people at the synagogue told me how Tzfat had become a part of their lives when they were involved in the renovation of Tzfat’s community center (the Matnas) — the very same community center that I grew up in — but I will keep that story for another time.
Tamar Reshef was born and raised in Safed and has a bachelor’s degree in community theater and education from Tel Aviv University. For the six years before she became a shlicha (emissary) for Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, she worked as the educational program coordinator in the Hof HaCarmel Youth Department in the Haifa area. She lives in Union County with her husband, Yuval, and their sons, Maayan, Aviv, and Shaked.