Bringing Feminism To Camp Ramah

As a counselor for thirteen-year-old girls at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires (New York) last summer, I felt it my responsibility to present a Judaism which is as inclusive of women as of men. However, since Camp Ramah is affiliated with the Conservative movement, there was a limit as to how far I could go.

I decided to focus in on the “BirkatHamazon” (“Grace After Meals”). In the second section of the blessing — third on Shabbat — there is a list of reasons for which we are thankful to God. Included in this list are: being given the Land of Israel, being taken out of bondage in Egypt and being taught the Torah. But, for me. the problematic item on this list is “Veh’al brit’cha sheh’ chatamta beev’sareynu” (“and for the covenant that you have sealed in our flesh”).

Although we must dig deeply to feel as if we, ourselves, had been taken out of Egypt, there is a limit as to how far one can dig. As women, there is nothing in our Jewish experience that includes the highly personal occurrence of having a covenant sealed in our flesh. None of us has been circumcised.

Last year I studied in Israel. and it was there that I met a woman — through the Women of the Wall — who explained the significance of this line. As women, she told me, we have to be aware of liturgical exclusion. She suggested her reformulation: “Veh’al brit’cha shell’ chatamta b’leebeynu” (“and for the covenant that you have sealed in our hearts”). I liked it and started using it.

I must confess, the religious consciousness of thirteen-year-old girls is not at peak level, and I was careful not to bombard them with too much innovation. I introduced this line change as something I had decided on personally and gave them the reasons why I thought it was important, allowing them to ask me any questions they had. There was some resistance, but happily a good number of the girls made the effort to implement the change. The beauty of the new words is that they fit perfectly into the tune.

Obviously there are many revisions to be made in order for the liturgy to be more inclusive of the female experience. Representation of the matriarchs alongside the patriarchs is one more way to balance the scale. There is a long way to go, but a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. We are on our way.