The Women’s Tefillin Gemach: “Having a community somewhere that supports you is vital to making any new practice sustainable.”
Alexandra Casser (right) runs the Women’s Tefillin Gemach, a free loan society that lends tefillin to women. She is an MA student studying the material culture of religious communities at the Bard Graduate Center. She also works as a sofer and lives in Manhattan.
Q: Tell me about the origins of the gemach, and how you came to be the coordinator/leader/organizer of it. Also, what made you want to be part of the project?
A: The gemach was the brainchild of Jen Taylor Friedman, who put it together because two things kept happening to her: 1) People gave her old tefillin, thinking that she would know better what to do with them since she’s a soferet, and 2) Women would ask her where to get some, since she’s a soferet. The Women’s Tefillin Gemach was born!I actually borrowed a pair from the gemach in college when I first started putting on tefillin. A few years later, Jen mentioned the gemach during a class on safrus [scribal arts] she was teaching, and I thought helping to run and expand it would be a great opportunity to help more people have access to what is traditionally thought of as an extremely important mitzvah.
Q: A gemach is primarily associated with money, or, in my head, with wedding gowns for low income brides, so this idea seems really radical. Can you comment on this reclamation of the gemach idea? Is that how you think of it?
A: I’ve always admired gemachs as powerful examples of what a community can achieve through organization and shared values. In many places, there are gemachs for not only wedding dresses, but baby clothes, toys, groceries, medicine, simchah decorations, and so on. I don’t think of the tefillin gemach as a reclamation of the idea, but rather as a logical applicaton of it in a situation where many Jews need a specific ritual item, and others are able to supply them.
Q: Do you think women wearing tefillin has become a more common practice? If so, why? If not, why not?
A: My impression from talking to people older than I am is that women laying tefillin has gone from being unheard of thirty years ago to being at least on the periphery of most observant Jews’ awareness. I think each successive generation becomes more comfortable with what was outré for their parents, so it’s inevitable that more women will feeling comfortable with it and want to try it out. In communities where women putting on tefillin isn’t accepted or encouraged, I hope that it at least becomes something people are accustomed to seeing in other communities and to hearing about often enough that it’s no longer considered strange. Additionally, I think that liberal Jewish movements which originally had very different relationships with particularistic rituals are still in the process coming to terms with ritual and tradition, and so are the people raised in them. In a world where information about Jewish rituals is so easily available and unique modes of worship are no longer (I hope) thought of as embarrassing Old World baggage, it’s not surprising that more people, including women, want to explore an iconic mitzvah.
Q: Have you gotten any responses to the concept/practice of a gemach that lends tefillin to women only? Have men asked to be lent tefillin?
A: Men have asked in the past, and have been directed to the many institutions that lend tefillin to men. I’m just a bit surprised and very pleased to say that I’ve never gotten any negative feedback for the project, just lots of encouragement.
Q: What would you say to women who are curious about trying to take this on, but don’t know how or might not be supported in doing it in their communities?
A: I think it’s impossible to overstate the importance of the Internet to the contemporary Jewish community, particularly to people who don’t locally have one supportive of their practices. I encourage those women to be in touch with like minded people online through the incredible number of blogs, forums, and groups that exist. Having a community somewhere that supports you is vital to making any new practice sustainable. And on a prosaic level, I’m always available to talk someone through putting on tefillin.
Q: How do I get some tefillin?
A: Contact me! firstname.lastname@example.org We are also always in need of more donations of tefillin.