Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Embarrasment that is the Women's Section in Many Orthodox Shuls in Israel

Rivkah Lambert Adler's piece lamenting the sorry state of the woman's section in Orthodox shuls is spot on. Many, many shuls in Israel, even in ostensibly modern communities, consign the women to a location where they can barely hear, much less see what's going on during davening. Take our shul, for example.
When we arrived in Yad Binyamin, the municipality was already well into the process of building the shul. The plans had long-since been approved, and changes of any kind weren't really much of an option.
When we finally inhabited the building, we realized that the architect, while he built a physically striking and beautiful building, had never spent much time in a shul, much less in the women's section. The women were seated in the balcony at the back, but in such a way that it was impossible for them to see anything while seated, as the wall separated the balcony from the main section was at least four feet high (and about a foot thick). Moreover, the entire section was built on a single level - not on graduated steps, so there was (and still is) no way for anyone behind the front row to see anything.
When the time came to buy the furniture, the shul quickly ordered the nice, comfy seats for the men's section, while the women sat in plastic chairs. Today, the women have been upgraded to nicer, plush office chairs, but they're still waiting for their Lavi seats. (That's in the works, I hear) We quickly replaced much of the wall with glass, but added decorative stickers on the glass that obscure the view to some degree.
It should go without saying that this situation would never, ever happen in an American Modern Orthodox shul. Before I left Michigan we were in the planning stages of finally replacing the old mechitzah, and we spent an inordinate amount of effort and energy trying to ensure the mechitzah that would allow women to feel part of the davening to the greatest possible degree. And yet, as Adler notes, if you tour many shuls in Israel you almost never find this type of attention given to the women's section. Why not?
Part of the blame for this situation lays with the men, of course. Men build the shuls and, for the most part, run them as well. Yet, to claim that it's only the fault of men would be less than accurate.
Back to our shul in Yad Binyamin. Almost immediately after we took possession of the building, it became clear that we had to quickly change the mechitzah wall. The shul sent out an email asking female members of the community to serve on the committee that would implement the changes, and of the women who responded, exactly none of them were Israelis. Only Anglos answered the call.
And, while Israeli women do complain about the cramped nature of the women's section, they aren't really active in trying to effect change. Why this is so is difficult to say. Some might suggest that after years of frustration, they've bothered trying. But I think that there's something else going on here as well.
In the United States, attendance at shul is an integral part of Orthodox Jewish life. Many, if not most women, attend shul each and every week. In my former shul, the women's section was as full as the men's each and every week, without fail. Shul wasn't just the domain of the men, at least on Shabbat.
That reality somehow hasn't made its way to Israel. While some women do attend shul regularly, and of course deserve a respectable women's section, far less women come to shul than men. Many women come to meet their husbands leaving shul and wait outside for them with their kids. Even many women whose husbands daven at an early minyan don't come to shul to daven - something their U.S. counterparts would usually do. Shul attendance and participation is just not seen as integral to women's religious lives. They come less and have less to do with the shul in general, which leads to the men (justifiably or not) putting less resources into the women's section.
We spent last Shabbat in Modiin, at the beautiful new shul in Buchman where my good friend Rabbi Shlomo Sobol serves as rabbi. The shul now sports three minyanim on Shabbat morning (so there's room for everyone), but on Friday evenings in the winter, when there's no early minyan, the place is packed. At least the men's section is. While men can't find a seat, there's more than enough room in the women's section.
While all of this doesn't excuse skimping on the women's section, it certainly does explain it. (Except at the Kotel. That's really an embarrassment.) The more women attend shul, participate in shul life, and take ownership over the shuls they belong to, the less we'll find the disturbing circumstances detailed in Adler's article.


  1. Several years ago Kolech sponsored a project where architects were asked to design a more women friendly shul - but meeting the Orthodox standards. The results were interesting. They all had equally sized men's and women's sections. I don't remember that any had details of the interior so you couldn't really tell what the mechitza would look like.
    But in Israel women are really not welcome at shul. We are not required to be there and no one is really including us by making it easier to hear or see. In fact the whole concept is to keep me as far away and as out of sight as possible so barring magic one-way mechitzot there isn't much a chance of feeling included. (And I do go to shul as lot, I just don't expect to feel 'included')

    1. I completely agree, Risa. In the States, Shabbat services and the kiddush that followed were, in all the Modern Orthodox synagogues I attended (Highland Park, NJ, Oak Park, MI, and Newton, MA) family-friendly occasions where like-minded Jews had a weekly chance to mingle and catch up on news. That's simply not the case here. Outside of Anglo communities, the concept of a kiddush is generally unheard of; men come to daven simply to discharge their obligation, and scratch their heads as to why women would show up at all. In part I think it's because the function of the shul is viewed differently: in the States it functions almost as a community center (and in many cases *is* a community center with classes, a preschool, Bar/Bat Mitzvah prep, etc.) whereas in Israel it's simply a space to daven. And since women have historically not participated in public prayer - why make space for them? So women aren't welcome, but probably because of historical precedents set in Europe, North Africa, Yemen, Iraq, etc. The American MO shul is a wonderful thing, for both women and men, but possibly a historical aberration.

    2. I just have to /wave to Mrs. Codish...

      - Avi Shevin, formerly of Oak Park, MI, now RBS A, Israel.

  2. My small amazing inspirational shul in Ramat Eshkol doesn't even have room for all the men let alone a women's section. My wife was used to Young Israel of West Hempstead before we made aliyah and was upset that our shul didn't have a women's section at all. Luckily the park is right next door where the women usually congregate :)

    1. Try the Bet Knesset Bet Yakov right off Paran,,,going down the steps to the park. Large shul, outstanding women's section, with a large balconey to see everything. (Quite similiar to the YI of West Hempstead)

  3. Wow. I have had the opposite experience with regard to some of statements here. Yes, I agree that women's sections are often "afterthoughts" and not planned well at all. Whether women can see and hear and participate in the davening (by being able to daven WITH the kehilla) is never considered. "You. Go sit in the corner over there." That seems to be the attitude. BUT...let me tell you my experiential differences...

    You state "It should go without saying that this situation would never, ever happen in an American Modern Orthodox shul." That is NOT true at all. I have been to MANY American modern orthodox shuls in the US where the women's sections are "afterthoughts". In fact, in Monsey, in the shul my parents belong to, the women's section has hard wooden benches for the women to sit on, and the men have plush seats with armrests to sit on. It is MODERN Orthodox shul. I have seen this type of thing elsewhere also. Additionally, you state that women in Ch'L go to shul but not as much in Israel. I have found just the opposite. On Friday nights, in the States, the women's section is mostly empty. On Shabbat SOME women come, the women's section is full but then it is usually much smaller than the mens section. (Is it smaller because fewer women come or do fewer women come because it is smaller???) In Israel, wherever I have gone, I find the shul is FILLED with women both Friday night and Shabbat morning. And yet -- I have been to shuls where women when seated cannot see a thing, when standing have to somehow manage behind a curtain or a lattice work or glass covered with stickers.

    1. Hi Rachel,
      Clearly, you are correct. I should not have stated that the situation wouldn't have happened anywhere in the US for obvious reasons. What I can say is that many shuls - pretty much every one that I've ever davened in regularly - built women's sections strongly accounting for the women's prayer experience.
      I guess when it comes to whether women attend shul in Israel, we have different experiences. But you are correct in the fact that the ezrat nashim here is usually tiny, so that's not saying much.


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