No, this isn’t a piece from the 1990s archives. This story is retro but it occurred June 7, 2014.
I arrived at Congregation Sons of Israel in Woodmere NY at 1030 shabbat morning for a bar mitzvah. When I entered the sanctuary Jack was already chanting so I quickly looked around for where to sit and saw one section with lots of open seats. I entered the third row when a hand grabbed my arm. I turned around and the woman who held my arm told me, “you can’t sit here.” “Oh! It’s not mixed seating?” I asked, both flustered and confused, as I quickly scanned a room of men and women sitting side by side. “This is the men’s section,” she informed me.
I sat one section over (behind the woman who grabbed my arm and who happens to be the synagogue president) feeling uncomfortable and contemplated going out for a breather. But after about twenty minutes the classic melodies that the cantor passionately sang moved me and I got swept away in the music, the words and the nostalgia. I sang and enjoyed the service.
Until an Asian woman with an Asian child and a white husband walked in and tried to sit in the men’s section. She didn’t have her arm grabbed as she was so unsure of where to sit that she was still looking around before she dared fully enter the men’s section. None the less, she clearly intended to enter the “forbidden to women” zone so the president walked over and explained to her and her husband they must sit in the mixed section.
After they were alerted, they walked together to the back of the sanctuary, the husband walked out for a few minutes and the wife and child stood in the back waiting. The child asked her mom where daddy was and mom said she wasn’t sure. A few minutes later the husband returned to the sanctuary and they sat together in a mixed section.
When the Torah service ended, I approached the president and recommended that they put a sign in front of the men’s section so that people don’t sit there accidentally and get embarrassed. I felt upset by my experience but the second incident was far worse. I explained to her that the second woman was clearly not born Jewish and shouldn’t be greeted that way when entering a sanctuary. No one should be embarrassed when entering a sanctuary.
At kiddush I introduced myself to the rabbi and complimented him on a beautiful service, a good sermon and told him that I was a ’99 JTS Rabbinical School graduate. He smiled and said hello but offered no information regarding where he was ordained.
I told him what happened that morning and asked him why they don’t have a sign that could save newcomers from embarrassment. He said that most people wouldn’t notice the sign and would sit there anyway. I asked him what you lose by placing a sign there and pointed out that men who believe in “men only” seating should be proud of their beliefs and not bothered by a “men’s section” sign. He just repeated that there is nothing wrong with a sign but many would not notice it anyway.
Whether you are a Long Island Conservative rabbi who feels bound by traditional Halacha or a freelance rabbi who does not, saving even one person from embarrassment is like saving the world. It is certainly worthy of hanging a sign. Where does human dignity rate on the halachic scale? I hope that sign will be there when I come back for Noah’s bar mitzvah.