The Invisible Woman

Last shabbat, I was sitting in shul during mincha, already having finished my private shemona esrai prayer, waiting for the chazzan to begin the public repetition. As is oft to happen, I was the only woman in shul. Now, let’s be honest here, I don’t normally go to shul for mincha, but megilla reading was Saturday night, ten minutes after shabbat ended, and I wanted to make sure I got to shul in time. I sort of figured that other women would have had the same thought, but nope.

But anyway. This particular shul has what I term a “women problem”. By that I mean, women just don’t go to shul. They don’t go on Friday night at ALL and on shabbat morning, there are MAYBE a third of the number of women as there are men. I’m not really sure why this is. The shul is located near an apartment complex where many young, newly married couples live. Some of these couples have children and apparently, once you have children, you become unable to ever leave your house at a reasonable time. I get that. But many of these couples don’t have children. The men go to shul, but the women stay home and read or sleep or set the table.

This is particularly troublesome for me, as one of the things I enjoy about shul is seeing my friends and having a chance to catch up with them on a weekly basis. (Obviously not during davening. Don’t you dare try to talk with me while I’m praying. But afterwards, hello.) If my female friends aren’t there, I feel like shul is lacking.

I’ve thought a lot about why women don’t go to shul, and I’ve spoken to a number of women about it. Although each has their own particular reason it basically comes down to “I’d prefer to stay at home and do X than go to shul”.

I mentioned above that I don’t normally go to shabbat mincha. I did, however, do that while I was in college. In fact, in college I prayed with a minyan three times a day, seven days a week. Sometimes I missed a minyan because I had class or homework or was too exhausted to wake up because I had just pulled an all-nighter, but the goal was there. A lot of that had to do with peer pressure, and the fact that going to minyan meant a chance to see my friends. Maariv was great because it was a short prayer in the middle of the night where I could literally take a 15 minute break and see 50 of my friends, and then go back to whatever I was doing before.

So, that brings me back to my current predicament. I go to shul on Friday night and I see maybe three women there, many weeks I’m the only one. Shabbat morning there are maybe twenty. Shabbat mincha, forget about it. Nothing.

There I was, last week, in shul on shabbat afternoon, davening mincha, when the gabbai starts walking around the shul and collecting the unused siddurim and chumashim to re-shelve. Now, this is totally inappropriate during mincha. He should be davening; he can clean up afterwards. But even more inappropriately, he walked over to the women’s section and started to do the same thing there! I was standing alone, and there he comes, just waltzing in to my section as if he owned the place.

I had many mixed feelings about the occurrence. On the one hand, I felt violated, raped. Who is he to decide he can come over to my section?? On the other hand, I felt like I shouldn’t really mind, because anyways I don’t like mechitzas and I would prefer to daven without them, though I recognize their pseudo-halachic  requirement (really, all that’s needed to satisfy the halacha is a separation, these ridiculous fake walls that people put up are basically just chumras adopted by leading rabbis). So if I would prefer to daven without a mechitza, why should I care that this guy violated the mechitza rule and just waltzed in to my section?

I guess what bothered me was the double standard. He, because of his maleness and sense of owning the shul, could go wherever he wanted whenever he wanted, and no one will say anything. Me, because of my femaleness and otherness, can only go where I am told. I couldn’t just decide to walk over to the men’s section, no, that would make the men feel uncomfortable. Plus, they will say, a man can’t pray in front of a woman, but a woman may pray in front of a man, so if the gabbai was really just walking around and collecting books, no halacha was violated.

Well, you know what? Maybe no halacha was violated, but I was violated. My sense of space was violated. My sense of belonging and sense of welcome was violated. I felt like I didn’t matter, like I was invisible.

And you know what? I was invisible. I, as woman, was invisible. Because there was just me there. The rest of the women were at home taking care of their kids or their house or their friends or their novels. But you know what? That’s not okay. Women, if we don’t want to be invisible, we have to be visible. Come to shul. Pray with me. Take the time out of your day to tell the shuls that we are not the invisible half of your membership, we are here and we are present and we are worth something.

In other words, lean in.

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On Women and the Hoshanot Circuits

Sukkot is supposed to be a joyous holiday, but every single year I come back from shul services feeling upset.

I am upset because, in every single orthodox shul that I have ever been in during sukkot, the men all pull out their lulavim and etrogim, and parade around the shul, joyously singing and waving the four species. The women stand and watch. Afterwards, some men come over to the women’s section and give their lulav and etrog to their wives/sisters/mothers/female friends who didn’t feel the need to purchase their own. The women do the mitzvah of shaking lulav, but don’t participate at all in the hoshana circuits.

I am used to feeling like a spectator watching orthodox prayer services. On a theoretical level, it bothers me, but on an emotional level, I’m less concerned with it because I know that that’s how orthodox prayer services (generally) have to be. I’ve been to partnership minyanim and LOVED them, but unfortunately the town that I currently live in doesn’t have such a minyan.

BUT. The reason that I really, really, hate watching the hoshana parade as an outsider is because IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE LIKE THAT. There is nothing stopping the women from taking their lulavim and etrogim and marching around the synagogue, albeit in the women’s section, as the men are doing the same on the men’s side.

I understand that a large reason why more shuls don’t do this is because women generally are not required to own their own lulav and etrog. Although a man may not borrow a lulav and etrog, a woman may use her husband’s or father’s lulav. Therefore, most women simply don’t have a lulav and etrog set available to wave during the hoshanot parade, since their male relatives are probably already using the family set. Although some single, adult women do own their own lulavim and etrogim, these women tend to not make up the majority of women in most orthodox synagogues. Families purchase a lulav and etrog set for each of the men, and the women share. To ask all women to purchase their own lulavim and etrogim so that they, too, can participate in the hoshana parade is to ask families to take on an extra expense that many just can’t afford.

I hear that, I really do. But the result is that women end up getting the message that they just don’t matter in shul. Articles have been written addressing why women seem to be a decreasing presence in the synagogue, and I think this is a major reason.

My plea to you: Next year, women, if you are at all able, purchase your own lulav and etrog. Bring it to shul with you. Don’t march around the synagogue if you feel uncomfortable as the only woman doing so, but at least stay in your seat and pull out your lulav and etrog and be an active participant in the hoshanot circuits. Once enough women start doing this, women’s hoshanot circuits won’t be uncommon, and our synagogue services can be more complete.

On The Mechitza

I really do not like Mechitzas. A mechitza, for the unfamiliar, is a synagogue partition which separates men from women. According to Jewish law, a man may not pray in the presence of a woman (interestingly, no such prohibition exists for women praying in the presence of men, although women are prohibited from praying in the presence of immodestly clad women).

In theory, the mechitza partition is supposed to give both men and women the ability to focus on prayer instead of fraternization. In actuality, because the prayer service is generally conducted from the men’s side, the women are often left with nothing to do BUT fraternize, albeit with the other women.

Some synagogues with a mechitza have taken steps to make their mechitzas less exclusive of women. For example, some have moved the bimah (the stage where the service is conducted), and erected the mechitza down the middle of the room, so that the bimah spans both the mens and womens sides. Some have made the mechitza out of see-through material.

Some of the worst synagogues for women are those where the women’s section is in a separate room completely, with only a small window at the top of the wall to allow the voice to carry from the other side. Not far behind are those synagogues with a floor-to-ceiling curtain separating the men and women. Twice, I have been in a synagogue with no women’s section. In the first instance, some kind-hearted man thought he was being welcoming and inclusive by inviting me to participate by sitting in the closet. In the second instance, I sat in the hallway, and after services a disgruntled old man told my father that if I return, I should be dressed more modestly (I believe the exact issue was that my shirt didn’t quite cover my collarbone)!

In the ancient temple of the Talmud, the women’s section was on a 2nd floor balcony, allowing for them women to peer down and observe the service while avoiding the possibility of inter-gender socialization. Some modern synagogues have adopted this floor plan. One problem with such a plan is that by definition, the women’s section will have to be smaller than the mens, to allow space for observation. Another problem is the observation itself. If the seats are on ground level, women will not be able to see the service unless they literally stand next to the railing to peer downwards.

Women’s decreased ability to see the prayer service is problematic for many reasons. First, as I alluded to above, if women can not observe the service they are more likely to become uninterested in it. Second, according to Jewish law, there are certain parts of the service that REQUIRE sight. For example, after the torah portion is read, the torah is held up and the congregation recites “and this is the Torah that Moses placed before the children of Israel by the word of God”. The congregation, men and women, are required to see and point to the torah. If women can not see the Torah, they can not fulfill this commandment.

In many shuls with limited observation opportunity for women, the women find whatever way they can to view the Torah during this point. Some peer through a crack in the curtains, some lean over the balcony, some even go to the entrance of the men’s section and stand in the doorway.

This practice of women aching to see the Torah has always struck me as somber. I am reminded of children clamoring to see the famous baseball player walking through the streets–an image of untouchability, of aloofness. This torah is so far removed from our reality, we will never get to be in the big leagues and actually be so close as to *gasp* touch the Torah. We can only hope that we arrive early enough to get a good seat near the crack in the mechitza to be able to get a small glimpse of the Torah.

Maybe, one day, if we’re lucky, we can actually hold, touch, and carry the torah as well. Maybe even read from it. But no…that’s just a pipe dream…