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The Best Seat in the Synagogue: Pluralistic ‘trichitza’ Has Precedent

September 13, 2006
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San Francisco’s Mission Minyan may be the only prayer community that regularly employs the “trichitza” today, but it pops up in a handful of other, temporary congregations, including college Hillels and Israel summer programs. And it was not uncommon in American synagogues before World War II. From its beginning almost three years ago, the Mission Minyan instituted tripartite seating — men’s and women’s sections on the side, and mixed seating in the middle — so that all members of the community could worship in the same room. It was a practical compromise, not an ideological statement.

They got the idea from Jews in the Woods, an online community of young, activist Jews that organizes mass Shabbatons in rural settings four or five times a year.

“We regularly have people from Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, renewal and secular humanist backgrounds in one davening place,” says Zachary Teutsch, co-coordinator of the 2003 Jews in the Woods gathering. “Because of that diversity we needed a creative solution. We had no idea it was used in the 1920s.”

In fact, the trichitza arrangement was “very common” in Orthodox and Conservative congregations between the two world wars, says Jeffrey Gurock, professor of American Jewish history at Yeshiva University.

The 1920s, ’30s and ’40s were “years of great fluidity,” he notes, a time when the line of demarcation between the movements wasn’t as set as it is today.

“You had every variety you could think of,” he says. “You’d have mechitza at certain services and not at others, congregations that had mechitzas during the year and not on High Holidays, others that had moveable mechitzas.”

The further one got from New York, Gurock says, the more experimentation one found. He describes a congregation in Tulsa, Okla., where one side of the congregation was for men only, the other side was for mixed seating, and a mechitza divided the two.

Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus of Chicago witnessed a “trichitza” in an Orthodox synagogue in Peoria, Ill., in 1974. And Gilah Langner of Washington notes that an Orthodox minyan that met at Congregation Adas Israel, a large Conservative shul there, used triple-section seating in the 1980s when she was a member. It abandoned the practice by 1990, when it became egalitarian and joined the larger congregation.

None of this would happen in an Orthodox synagogue today, says Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Association of America.

“Many things were done ‘back when’ because the leadership of a particular organization felt it was better than nothing at all,” he says. “That doesn’t mean it’s a viable precedent.”

The new, independent minyans use the system consciously, as part of a search for a pluralism that works for them, says Ben Dreyfus, a co-founder of the Kol Zimrah minyan in New York.

“What’s interesting is that the issue of who is sitting where can be considered separately from who reads from Torah,” notes Dreyfus, who started a trichitza dialogue on his blog, “You can mix and match these things.”

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