Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Back of the bus? What about back of the shul?

In the recent firestorm over women's issues in Israel, nothing has been more emblematic than the long-overdue pushback on Haredim who try to enforce a "women in the back" policy on public buses.  This is such a clear and obvious violation of women's rights, and evokes such strong visceral reactions in anyone familiar with the American civil rights movement that it is an easy target.

In the segment of National Religious Orthodoxy that I am part of, everyone seems to agree that forcing women to the back of the bus is not a halachic requirement, and is a Haredi stringency that is counter to the way we see ourselves as Orthodox Jews.  Women in our community would never accept being sent to the back of the bus.

So why do we accept women at the back (or the top) of the shul?  At the corner of my street is a shul we used to be members of.  They completed a building a few years ago and the women's section is a balcony.  There is a small cage-like section with a few seats on the main floor in the back, but that seats only a few people.  The beit midrash, where daily services are held, has an ever shrinking women's section in the back corner.  It looks (and must feel) like a cage with only one or two seats.  This is despite the fact that there are women who come to say Kaddish at many of the daily services.  On the one hand, I admire these women for their commitment to Kaddish despite the way they are being treated.  On the other hand, I wonder how they can allow themselves to be treated this way.

By the time the shul was built we were active in another shul, but we had kept an associate membership.  When we saw what had been built, we withdrew our membership, but it is still the most convenient daily minyan.  Unfortunately, my regular shul is only a Shabbat minyan, and there are no better alternatives in the area.  I daven there regularly, but it makes my blood boil.  I love the Rabbi at this shul.  He is a progressive by almost all standards in Orthodoxy.  His wife is a brilliant talmidat chacham (Torah scholar) and speaker, as well as a leading lawyer in Israel.  How do they put up with this?  (To be fair, he was hired after the building was built.)

This is not a rant against this specific shul.  It is a problem across Orthodoxy in the Diaspora and Israel.  I can somewhat understand that buildings built 50 years ago are hard to retrofit (although that too is possible).  But how can a shul built in the past 20 years, in the Modern Orthodox community, not have a women's section which is side by side with the men?  Have we made no progress at all?  In my main community, we use a shul that was built with a balcony. It was designed (also in the past 10 years) by a famous woman architect who is secular.  What was she thinking? Would she have built a lecture hall (the shul is on a University campus) with a section in the back for the women?  We did not build the shul - it was just the best available option when we were looking for a venue.  However, we put a mechitza down the middle downstairs, and use the upstairs as overflow seats for the men.  It is doable - people just need to insist.

This is not a halachic issue.  I accept the the halachic need for a mechitza and separate sections for men and women.  I just don't accept that women should be at the back of the shul, any more than they should be at the back of the bus.

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