When I Tried to Get Girls to Wear Tefillin

“Close your eyes and brainstorm an ideal prayer environment.” Last summer, I sat with a group of soon-to-be summer camp division heads as an educator guided us through this exercise. Eyes shut, I imagined all of my campers, young teenagers, wearing tefillin (the black boxes with leather straps that ritually observant Jews use during morning prayers) and tallitot (ritual prayer shawls) as they participated in the service. Traditionally, both of those ritual items have been worn mostly by men.

But many contemporary Jews allow, encourage, or require women to wear them as well.

In the months leading up to last summer, I’d spent a long time thinking about this ideal. Back in 2017, my first summer at Camp Ramah in Northern California, I noticed that the packing list said that tefillin and tallit were mandatory for men and optional for women. Then, as now, strident about egalitarianism, I packed my own — if it was mandatory for men, to me, it must be mandatory for everyone. Even before I first stepped into the space of camp, I assumed that, since women were allowed to wear those ritual items, one of our shared goals would be for that to become a widespread practice.