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.