She was a woman of a different generation. That is to say, she did not feel all too comfortable with the prerogatives Conservative Judaism bestowed on women through egalitarianism. She didn’t fight equality. She just saw no need to actively, publicly, participate in it.
As the head gabbai (Hebrew term for glorified usher, the person who doles out the honors during services) at our temple for many years, I tried to dispense the weekly honors to as many new faces as possible. With the temple’s transformation into an egalitarian synagogue some 20 years ago, new faces came to include women. Many eagerly embraced the mantle of equality. Shirley Halperin and many of her cohorts found it difficult to break the bondage of thousands of years of religious second class status.
Bat-Mitzvahs for girls of 13 are commonplace now. Many middle-aged women have validated their newly endowed equality by undergoing a later-in-life bat mitzvah (Gilda celebrated her bat mitzvah when she was 50). Shirley’s generation did not. They could never bring themselves to feel comfortable doing anything but sit or stand in the pews.
She was shy. A diminutive figure with short brown hair, she wouldn’t even go up to the bimah (altar) to recite a prayer in English. Each week I’d tell her her reprieve would last only until the following Saturday, that I’d wear down her defenses and finally get to escort her up to the bimah. Even as her friends in the next to last row broke down and accepted small parts in the service, Shirley resisted.
I stopped being a gabbai about five years ago. To my knowledge, none of my successors prodded her, or her friends, to participate. It’s now too late. Word came today that Shirley passed away Wednesday.