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.

But when I got to camp, it was clear that that mindset wasn’t common among the staff — that summer, and every summer since, I’ve been one of the only women to wear tefillin at prayer services every morning. This issue nags at me; after all, I chose to work at Ramah in part because of its stated commitment to egalitarian practice, but from summer to summer, there seemed to be no movement on this particular issue. And moreover, I felt like this huge gender gap wasn’t being addressed, or at least, not really beyond the first day of camp. Here was this thing that half of the camp did, every single morning, and the other half never did, but we never talked about what was happening! If full participation in this ritual was our goal, it seemed to me that we were failing. If not, I wasn’t sure what the ultimate goal of our prayer experiences was. 

So last year, before I returned to camp again, I decided to do some research about tefillin at camp. It turns out that I wasn’t alone in thinking this was an important practice. Beyond about the optics of gender egalitarianism; the practice of tefillin at camp has practical impact as well. “Tefillin is very much a symbol for women’s equal obligation in mitzvot,” says Myra Meskin, a fifth-year rabbinical student at Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies in L.A. (and one of the first women I knew personally who wore tefillin). “It continues to be a thing of women not seeing that they are equal under Jewish law until we see women taking [tefillin] on in the same capacity as men.”

And I also wasn’t alone in being confused about the status quo. Miriam Wolf, a former Ramah camper and longtime staff member told me that decades ago, as a camper, the policy was the same — men had to don these items, but it was optional for women. She “always assumed that by [her] kids’ generation, tallit and tefillin would be ubiquitous among female campers.” But now both of her kids have worked at camp and, still, almost no female staff––let alone campers–wear tefillin regularly. While some more women wear a tallit, that ritual, too, is much more common among boys than girls.

 Clearly, if the ultimate goal is to encourage more women to wear tefillin, the policy of “allowing” women to wear them might not go far enough. And while it might seem like the solution to this problem could just be to state as an obligation that everyone over the age of bar or bat mitzvah wear tefillin and tallit, that approach creates problems as well. Rabbi Sarah Graff, who works at Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, pointed out that for a female camper or staff member, “it’s hard to not feel like you’re making a statement” when you wear tefillin and participate in a ritual that has for so long been gendered male — a statement that, especially for many teens concerned about their image in the eyes of their peers, might be scary to make. She also reminded me that, while egalitarian practice is important to Ramah, so is making each camper feel welcome; if we were to mandate wearing tefillin for women, some girls from more religiously conservative background might feel out of place. An additional factor that makes it hard to mandate tefillin is the price tag; each set of tefillin generally costs upwards of $300, and camps just don’t have enough extra sets of tefillin to loan them to every camper who doesn’t have their own. 

Because of these factors, and so many others, camp’s policy wasn’t going to change last summer — but maybe our educational strategies could. After these and many other conversations, I began the summer determined to create an environment that, to use Meskin’s words, was full of “thoughtful, proactive conversation about what the purpose is of the ritual of tefillin.” So I started many mornings by inviting campers to try on one of our few extra pairs, I asked other staff members to share why they found tefillin important to them, and I tried to make space for campers to think about their own connection to the ritual.

But it didn’t work. Or, at least, not yet — almost no new staff members or campers tried on tefillin last summer. Even in my conversations with staff members, many of them just laughed when I asked them if they would be interested in trying on tefillin. Often, a not insignificant part of me wonders if this dream of mine is even attainable.

I’ve started to make peace with the fact that, in my time at camp, I will likely not succeed in creating the tefillin revolution of my dreams. But last summer I did have a few campers and staff come up to me and tell me that our group-wide conversations encouraged them to think in ways they hadn’t before about their own connection to these rituals. These open, thoughtful conversations are just the first step — they probably won’t get my community all the way to full ritual egalitarianism. But having them now, even years overdue, might mean that the next generation of staff members won’t be asking the same questions that I am.