Through the Looking Glass of the Mechitza


For me, teen minyan on Shabbat goes something like this: I get there promptly at the beginning of services — 9:30 a.m. My entering the room makes absolutely no difference — only boys are counted in the quorum. At this point I am completely alone on my side of the mechitza, the partition that separates women and men in an Orthodox synagogue. Before services begin, I have to ask the leader of the service to slide the podium over so that it’s in the center of the mechitza as opposed to the center of the boys’ side—a set up I would consider a norm in Modern Orthodoxy.

The service continues and as the time for Torah reading approaches, someone takes the Torah around the boys’ side. I must jump if I wish to reach over the mechitza and kiss the Torah. The layning (Torah reading) is a bitter point for me. The boys assist, compliment and tease each other — laughing, joking and living the rituals; they literally own the room. I am a nothing.

By Musaf (the closing service) there are four girls in the room, sometimes five. One or two girls, usually me, get to recite two paragraphs that comprise the prayer for the State of Israel. I stand on my side, fairly invisible to the majority of the participants; maybe two boys will mutter an Amen.

The service ends and one of the boys rises and begins to dole out aliyot for the boys to read next week: “Who will be here next week?” he asks. (I will.) “Who can layn?” (I can.) “Who wants shlishi (the third aliyah)?” (I do.) “OK, great, we're done. Who wants to say Kiddush?” (Me.) None of these silent cries for religious participation are ever heard, of course, and kiddush is served without anyone wondering why the ratio for guys to girls is almost three to one.

What I don’t understand — it really does baffle me — is how we call ourselves Modern Orthodox. This patriarchal design we call a religious experience is not reflective of modern society; it’s as anachronistic as possible. The few allowances—the girls’ dvar Torah and the prayer for the State of Israel—take some of the sting out of the experience of invisibility, yet I still find myself perpetually irked. The caging restrictions are conducive to the small number girls present — why come when you mean nothing to the service?

The bottom line is this: Girls are not encouraged to show up to synagogue, which is precisely why they don’t. Teenagers of both genders have no real responsibilities. The only real reason for an observant teen not to go to shul is to sleep late. So why is it that girls use that excuse so willingly and boys actually show up? Our society is not only barring girls from doing anything, but expressing complete and total indifference towards us when we do attend services. 

The height of my religiosity was my bat mitzvah. Looking back at what I went through, I don’t know how I was blessed to have it happen the way that it did. I decided to layn; I’m fairly stubborn and I simply said, “My male friends did it, so will I.” The why-shouldn’t-I aspect that most critics take never crossed my mind.

My parents believed in encouraging my desire, so after much talk with Rabbi Adam Starr (rabbi of the Young Israel of Toco Hills in Atlanta), I was able to layn in my living room during a women-only mincha service on a Shabbat afternoon. Holding the Torah and reading from it reminded me of what I loved about Judaism: the balance of tradition, with a Torah reading including rigidly maintained rituals, and the innovation of having me, a girl, lead.

So now, as I sit in shul every week with metaphorical duct tape stopping my mouth from singing out to God, I think about how Modern Orthodoxy is tipping its own scale. The movement is losing its modernity to satisfy the traditions of others, as the girls fade away without Modern Orthodoxy glancing back.

I know in my case certainly, and in the cases of many of my female peers, that this is an age where we will either fall into religion — or out. Thus I really don’t know how we can call ourselves Modern Orthodox and let every teenage girl grow up with no interest or opportunity and condone rabbinic indifference.

In modern society, we have women’s suffrage — women vote, women run organizations and women speak in public. So why should it be that suddenly the shul is the only area where women are denied such rights? When girls live in a time where gender roles are being demolished, no one associated with such modernity is going to want to connect to religion. As members of Modern Orthodoxy, we care so much about not upsetting the boundaries set up by the other more stringent sects of religions that we lose ourselves — and our girls.

I am a teenager; believe me when I say I know about peer pressure. Yet, some part of me thought that it only applied to clothing brands and parties, not religious denominations; I guess I was wrong. I am saddened that in my progressive minyan I still cannot hold the Torah, recite a blessing from the bima or participate in any aspect of the minyan that I punctually attend.

My male peers obviously understand this, as they literally sing out every morning, “Thank God for not making me a woman.” Yet we make no changes in the services for the sake of this tradition and that callousness pushes the limit. Why are we so ashamed to house religious feminism and religious freedom in our denomination? Why do we act in fear of fear what others say at the expense of our girls’ religious practices? Why do we try oh so much harder to say “no” rather than “yes”?

Does anyone realize that if this keeps up, there will be no future movement because there will be no girls who know or care about any of this religion — and that it is your fault, Modern Orthodox society, not ours!