Item: In an Orthodox shul I attended while visiting friends in another community for a simcha, the men sat in beautifully constructed wooden synagogue furniture from Kibbutz Lavi…
…while the women sat in plastic Keter chairs that had been stacked in a corner.
Item: I attended a lecture on Derech Eretz, the ideals of interpersonal kindness and conscientiousness, held in an Orthodox shul. Separate seating was set up for men and women. The men sat in the regular men’s section and the women were seated in rows of folding chairs that began behind the end of the men’s section. I arrived on time and paid the same price for admission to the lecture as men were charged, yet the very best seat I could get was further away from the speaker and less comfortable than the seating available for men, including those men who came late.
Did I mention the topic of the lecture was Derech Eretz?
Item: Praying in a certain Orthodox shul for Yom Kippur, it is impossible for me to see when the aron kodesh, the ark, is open. The only way I know to stand is from the scraping of chairs and the rustling I hear coming from the men’s section.
Item: In an Orthodox shul I attended while visiting family in another community, the men’s entrance was through decorative double doors in the front of the building. The women’s entrance required me to pass by the shul’s dumpsters, enter an unmarked door on the side of the building and climb two flights of stairs.
Item: Though my husband and I were the first ones at a concert of Jewish music being held in an Orthodox shul, and despite the fact that I was charged the same ticket price as the men, I was told I must sit in the cramped women’s section behind tables two rows deep and to the left of the performer. Men had their choice of seats facing the performer and had plenty of room to dance. A man who came 45 minutes late was able to sit two rows from the performer.
I could continue with similar examples of a lack of derech eretz I’ve experienced as a woman over the years, in different communities and in different countries, but I believe the point is clear. We in the Orthodox community have a derech eretz problem when it comes to women in synagogue spaces.
I’d like to assume that it’s a problem of oversight rather than of intentionality.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that I want to wear tefillin or serve as a ba’al tefilla or be called up to the Torah for an aliyah. I’m not inherently opposed to separate seating during services. Please don’t conflate and thereby dismiss what I’m saying because my point is based on gender. I’m not revealing my disdain for being a Jewish woman and I have no secret desire to be a Jewish man. I’m a committed, faithful Orthodox woman, married to a former pulpit rabbi, who would like to be treated with dignity whenever I enter an Orthodox synagogue. That hardly seems like a controversial expectation.
I’m speaking here about derech eretz and kavod habriot (honoring the works of the Creator) – the simple human dignity of women that is often violated in public Jewish spaces. No woman should have to feel diminished because of thoughtless spatial planning.
I imagine that most people involved in making decisions that lead to these sorts of circumstances are not intentionally hostile toward women but are rather unaware of the consequences of their actions. I believe these are, in the main, sins of omission rather than of commission. My intention here is to draw attention to the issue in the hope that, by sensitizing more people to the unintended consequences of careless synagogue design, things can change for the better.