At the beginning of Kabbalat Shabbat last week, I walked into the women’s section at an out of town shul and found it filled with men. One man had his two young children with him and was sitting on a couch in the back of the women’s section with his legs spread out into the aisle so I had to step over them to get to my assigned seat. Another was davening mincha in the back, I assume out of respect for the rabbi who was giving a shiur in the men’s section before Shabbat davening.
I felt the anger building inside me, as I opened my own siddur and began to pray.
Seriously, it’s not enough that I need to contend with man-spread on subways and buses? Now I’m dealing with this in synagogue?
To me, men taking over the women’s section is an act of aggression. I’ve seen it time and again and invariably, the men don’t bother moving when they see women walking in.
These men were violating Covid rules since the synagogue required pre-registration and provided assigned seating. They were also violating halakha by praying alongside female strangers in the synagogue sanctuary.
But most irksome of all, they were violating the laws of common decency, bein adam l’chavero by not treating others as they would like to be treated.
I was tempted to walk into the men’s section to begin davening there. I held myself in check for about five minutes until I walked to the back of the room and inquired of the man moving his lips silently with his siddur open. “Do you really feel comfortable davening in the women’s section with women present?”
He put his fingers to his lips as if to shush me and kept on davening. I went back to my seat and when I turned around a few minutes later, all the men were gone.
Needless to say, this was not a joyous way to greet Shabbat, nor was this the first time I’ve experienced such a total disregard for women when entering a synagogue. On several occasions, I’ve encountered men davening in the women’s section or, worse, been at services where no women’s section was set up at all. My family had to fight on a kosher cruise a few years ago to get them to set up a mechitza so women could participate in the prayer services.
At an outdoor minyan over the summer, I found myself with five other women praying next to a trash dumpster because the men refused to get up and move to create a women’s section.
Does this discourage me from attending Shabbat services? No, and thankfully, it’s never been an issue in my own synagogue where women show up in force at weekly minyanim and regularly recite Kaddish. I’ve also reached an age where I’m pretty comfortable pushing back on men who are my age or — more often than not — years younger than me. Someone needs to educate them on a vital issue that threatens the future of Orthodox Judaism.
Rabbi Ephraim Glatt, in his podcast on OU Torah, begins a shiur on this topic by saying that it’s never acceptable for a man to be in the women’s section if women are present or likely to show up. He then goes on to cite the Mishna Berurah’s and Aruch HaShulchan’s take on the issue: Regardless of whether women are present or likely to be present, it’s better to never daven in the women’s section.
In other words, men need to know their place and stay there.
And, yes, I am worried that many women are being driven away from davening in shul. Isaac Moses, who addressed the question of whether men should daven in an empty women’s section on the website mi yodeya, summed up my thoughts perfectly: Even if a women’s section is “usually empty”, he wrote, when women do show up, they may “feel unwelcome and unable/unwilling to either use the space alongside the man or to evict him. Part of the reason that women don’t attend in the first place may be that they are aware that the women’s section is not effectively reserved for them.” He said he has heard this from women directly.
I’ve seen this dynamic as well, especially among the growing force of young women who were raised in the Modern Orthodox tradition and are now graduating from prestigious universities and entering the workforce alongside their male counterparts.
These doctors, lawyers, investment bankers and computer programmers will not tolerate feeling disenfranchised when they try to daven in the tradition in which they were raised.
The sad truth is that during the pandemic, many people have been shut out of Orthodox minyanim altogether in universities across the country following strict Covid rules that restrict groups to no more than 10.
This guidance disproportionately impacts women who are not counted in a quorum of 10.
Instead of waging vigorous discussions with university administrators, campus Rabbis and Orthodox Jewish student leaders have acquiesced — with female students suffering the fallout.
Even in the days before Covid, women have encountered men learning in the women’s section during davening in shuls across New York, Boston and Los Angeles accosted by harsh words of “Bittul Torah!” when they try to take their rightful place in the women’s section.
What these women are hearing is, “You are insignificant and do not belong here. I, as a man, should not be taken away from my Torah learning or davening for even one second by your presence.”
Some have stood their ground. Others have turned to egalitarian communities. But the sad truth is too many have opted out of attending synagogue altogether.
How can we solve this problem? Education and raising awareness are key.
Those in Orthodox communities, universities and Jewish day schools should understand that it is never acceptable behavior to exclude women from public ritual engagement opportunities.
There are concrete steps that can be taken which include setting up women’s sections that are as appealing as men’s, and putting up signage indicating that the space is reserved for women alone during times of prayer, and refusing to hold services that exclude women. And, yes, we — especially the folks on the other side of the mechitza — need to call out men who remain stubbornly in the women’s section when we enter, and not let up on them until they leave. After Covid is behind us, we need to take a serious look at this issue and what we can do better as we face challenges in the years ahead.
Deborah Kotz is a former journalist and freelance writer from Silver Spring, MD.
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