by Ary Hammerman ’25
In early October, The Leffell School piloted a Mechitza Minyan, in which men and women are not permitted to sit together and are separated by a barrier. The minyan meets weekly on Thursdays, one of the in-school Torah reading days.
TLS was founded as the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester in 1966 and was affiliated with the Conservative movement at the time. When the school ceased being a Solomon Schecter and Conservative day school, TLS was able to respond to years of parent requests for a non-egalitarian, Orthodox-style tefilah option.
The response from within the TLS community has been varied and breaks across gender, religious affiliation and age.
“We’ve had families asking us for years and years to include this minyan option, but for a long time, as a Conservative school, that really wasn’t possible,” Associate Head of School Rabbi Harry Pell said. “About 30% of the families at Leffell affiliate with Orthodox synagogues, so as we became a more independent school, we explored with these families what they were looking for. Were they looking for us to become an Orthodox school? The answer was no, they appreciate the school as it is, but they are used to a particular approach to tefilah where men and women have different responsibilities and they would love to have that option at Leffell.”
“We are not looking to radically change the DNA of the school, but I think Leffell is strong enough in its egalitarianism to allow for families whose preference is not an egalitarian prayer setting, to be able to have that option.”
Senior Alec Litvak attends the minyan regularly and often leads the service, although he attends a Conservative synagogue with his family.
“The Mechitza Minyan makes me feel more comfortable [than grade-level prayers],” Litvak said. “I’ve noticed that the students are more serious about davening and more participatory. I think the minyan shows that the school is truly pluralistic because it allows for a diversity of thought and opens the door for representation for marginalized Jewish communities and makes us feel more included.”
Ten male and six female students signed up for this minyan, and Tanakh teacher Rabbi Yitzchak Zilbiger oversees it.
“The minyan is a very pleasant experience for me and the students, and I hear positive feedback from them,” Zilbiger said. “I’ve noticed that students who want to come to this minyan are good daveners and more active participants in tefilah.”
Though the Mechitza Minyan is more inclusive to Orthodox families, others have said that there is a risk of it going against the gender-inclusive egalitarian values of the school and excluding students along or outside of the gender spectrum.
“Any issue that has to do with gender must be handled very sensitively in our school, but I don’t actually anticipate that [non-binary students wanting to come to the mechitza minyan] will be much of an issue,” Pell said. “We of course have and welcome non-binary students, but I don’t think they would seek out Tefilah spaces that are organized by gender, especially when the vast majority of our Tefilah spaces are organized without any regard for gender.”
Freshman Tirra Stein-Talesnick, an agender student, shared that this tefilah option is exclusive to those outside of the gender binary.
“I personally am against mechitza minyans in general,” Stein-Talesnick said. “They are very exclusive because men are the only ones that do anything and there’s this need to have a physical divider between men and women so that men aren’t distracted from their tefilah by the women, which I don’t agree with. Also, as someone not in the gender binary, there is quite literally no place in this minyan for me.
“I can’t really see a way that would make me feel included in it that would still be an Orthodox prayer, because the very fabric of a mechitza minyan is this idea of separation.”
Freshman Chany Krausz’s family is Orthodox and she said she feels included attending this minyan in school. She said that this is a good option for those who want to attend, but there’s no obligation for people who wish not to.
“I think either a non-binary person could choose which side they feel more comfortable to sit on or they could have a different section,” Krausz said. “I think the Mechitza Minyan is a good option and makes Orthodox parents more comfortable sending their kids to Leffell. It’s better to have the option if you want to attend, though obviously, you don’t have to if you are uncomfortable with it.”
Pell hopes that this tefilah option will make the school more inclusive, but has heard both negative and positive comments from the parents of high school students. A TLS parent who wished to remain anonymous said that it contradicts the school’s values.
“I feel this new minyan has created inconsistency in the ways in which gender issues are dealt with at different levels within the school,” the parent said. “Female students have always been taught that they are equal participants in the Jewish life of our community. They are taught to confidently lead prayers and read Torah, encouraged to wear a kippah and a tallit, and supported if they choose to wrap tefillin.
“The school has, until now, nurtured an environment that affirms their absolute equality to their non-female peers throughout the K-12 experience. Yet now the High School holds certain prayer services which define female students as less-than-equal participants in Jewish worship and observance. This seems out of sync with the school’s practices for many years. I believe this change could threaten the very uniqueness that distinguishes us from other Jewish day schools.”
Stein-Talesnick also said that if this minyan were to continue, a Reform minyan should also be included as a tefilah option, and the anonymous parent agreed.
“If the school is truly committed to becoming a pluralistic community, this must extend to all denominations and levels of observance,” the parent said. “It is hardly acceptable to make ideological concessions at the most observant end of the spectrum yet not at the less observant or even secular end of the spectrum. So then the question is, are they planning to also accommodate the families who are most comfortable praying in accordance with Reform, Reconstructionist, or even Humanistic practices?”
Though Pell said he understands where this idea comes from, he also said that the school identifies as halakhic or traditional (following Jewish law), and notes that because Reform minyans are not always halachic, it is therefore going against the school’s values to include a Reform tefilah option.
Both Rabbi Pell and Zilbiger are eager to see how this Orthodox-style minyan influences the school.
“We’re going to see where this goes,” Pell said. “How does this minyan leave the students feeling? How does it leave gender non-binary students feeling? How does it leave students who identify as Orthodox feeling? What about students who prefer to daven in egalitarian spaces? We are excited to find out.”