By Ilona Shechter, October 2013
"Granny, why can't I sit downstairs?" I always asked my Grandmother as we sat upstairs in the women's section in the shul in Muizenberg, the seaside suburb of Cape Town. Her answer was always unsatisfactory, as was the answer that my Grandpa gave me when I asked him why I couldn't have a Bar Mitzvah like my cousin Stanley, who got to chant from the Torah, sing Haftarah and lead the service. I was so jealous. All that awaited me, was a group of girls sharing a Haftarah on a Sunday night and a party afterwards! After driving my Grandparents crazy with questions, it was suggested that my parents join the burgeoning Progressive movement where I would be treated with much greater equality. And it certainly happened, with the exception of Bnei Mitzvah. Girls still didn't have that opportunity and it upset me and took me until I was 49 to attain that moment in my life, my rite of passage.
It was in California, where we now live, that I finally put on a tallit for the first time. It was one of my Grandpa's and as the garment fell about my shoulders, I felt the embrace of not just my grandfather but my Jewish heritage, culture and faith, and it was such a warm embrace and I felt as though I had earned this right to put on this garment along with every other Jew. I could never understand the restrictive stranglehold that the ultra-Orthodox held in Israel, during my year that I spent there - I still don't. I do know that as a Reform Jew, I need to fight it. With all of the strength I have as a woman, as a teacher, as a proud, passionate Jew. Judaism is my heritage and right as much as it is any man's and I deserve every privilege that this incredible faith offers, as does every Jewish woman, Orthodox, Conservative or Reform or any other stream of Judaism.
I was born in Cape Town, South Africa, and am married to an Israeli and we have 1 son. I am a teacher in a Jewish Day School where I teach Jewish Studies, Israel and Holocaust to 6th and 8th graders. I am a Museum Fellow of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, a winner of the Grinspoon Steinhardt award for Excellence in Jewish Education and I am really proud of this and very humble, as I love what I do. I am also an Alum of the Yad Vashem International School of Holocaust Studies.