Vienna 2018: How Laying T’fillin Cultivated a New Community

By Talia Levin ‘20

Over February break, I had the honor of visiting Vienna: a city full of culture, heritage, and amazing people. We stayed with the students from the Zwi Perez Chajes Schule (ZPC for short), whom we had met when they came to New York two weeks prior.

Judaism in Vienna is mainly what we would consider Orthodox in America. There is one non-Orthodox synagogue that’s frowned upon by the larger Viennese community. The concept of women as equal in ritual practice – not to mention as rabbis – was shocking to the ZPC students.

While we were there, we prayed with the students each morning in their school’s minyan. The first day we were on time, I wrapped t’fillin as I have been doing each day for over a year in Heschel’s egalitarian minyan, my camp, and my youth group. ZPC’s religion teacher, who enforced the rules, was absent that day, so I wrapped and prayed on the women’s side of the mechitza, disturbing no one. I received a text that night from one of the students who had come to New York asking me to teach her how to wrap t’fillin that week.

The next day, as I walked into t’fillah, the religion teacher approached me and asked if I was Talia Levin. When I replied that I was, he clarified that if I wanted to wrap t’fillin during t’fillah, I should go into a separate room because he “wanted everyone to be comfortable” – except for me, that is.

My Viennese host and I headed to a neighboring classroom along with two female Heschel students. My friends from Heschel returned to the synagogue, where everyone else was praying, and brought the rest of the female Heschel students as well as four female ZPC students, totalling ten people: a minyan. I led an abbreviated t’fillah, wearing t’fillin, feeling extremely empowered. Afterward, the teacher expressed to the Heschel students that separating me was nothing personal, but rather enforcement of the Chief Rabbi of Vienna’s policy. The ZPC students did not know women wearing t’fillin was an option, and the teacher wanted to keep it as such.

The next t’fillah we attended, we immediately went to the other room and assembled 13 girls and two boys – one from Heschel and one from ZPC. Afterward, I helped a female ZPC student wrap t’fillin for the first time. The smile on her face made me so proud because I saw the change that was made simply by offering her more options.

At Shabbat dinner, one of the religious male ZPC students asked me why I wrap t’fillin. I explained my motivation to perform an additional mitzvah and the idea that women were permitted, or even obligated, in positive time-bound mitzvot in modern times. I told them that in the Conservative communities I’m a part of, women’s equal participation in mitzvot is an accepted aspect of Judaism. Their questions came from a place of genuine curiosity because they had never been exposed to this type of religious practice.

I know that the minyan we created in Vienna no longer exists, and the men we challenged are settling back into their ways. But I hope that we exposed the other teens we were with to something new, making them question their options. Indeed, while Vienna is a beautiful place filled with history, in some ways, I feel like they are still living in it.


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