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.