There has recently been a spate of articles online about the experiences of women in synagogues. Rivkah Lambert Adler wrote about her frustration at the inferior seating available to women in shul. The women’s section is generally much smaller than the men’s, the chairs are sometimes less comfortable and the position of the women’s section is not always conducive to hearing and seeing. After Pesach, Hadassah Sabo Milner wrote about the uplifting experience of carrying the Torah through the women’s section. She mentions her negative feelings for her local shul, where you can only see from the front row and her preference for curling up with a good book instead.
Rabbi Reuven Spolter blogged about the deplorable state of some shuls’ women’s sections. He pointed out that shul-going for women is more common outside Israel, where the synagogue is a community center as well as a place for prayer. And that more attention is given to the architecture of the women’s section in American shuls, since the women are more involved.
All of these discussions have made me wonder whether women who don’t go to shul are simply uninterested in communal prayer or whether circumstances are keeping them away. As a shul-goer myself, I wasn’t sure why many women tend to avoid shul, so I asked my social media connections their reasons for not going. The main reasons cited were:
- My children can’t sit and there is no place for them to play – While some shuls (primarily outside of Israel) offer activities for children during davening, these activities don’t usually occupy the smallest children. In Israeli shuls it is common to find kids playing in a nearby park while their parents daven, but this is a solution which works only for older children who can play unsupervised.
- It ends too early – This is a complaint in Israeli shuls, which generally start at 8 AM or 8:30 and finish around 10 AM. Since Israelis have no other day to sleep late in the morning, many moms find that by the time they have had a little lie-in and are ready to go out, the congregation is already filing out and getting ready to go home.
- The women’s section is too loud and distracting for proper prayer – Between the women talking to each other and the young children making noise, it is hard to concentrate on davening in shul. Davening at home offers a distraction-free environment for serious prayer.
- Tradition – Many women have been brought up to consider davening at shul a men’s activity. Their mothers and grandmothers did not go to shul, so they don’t feel the need to either. After all, the halachic obligation to pray in a minyan applies only to men.
- It’s too long/boring – Not everyone succeeds in connecting to God through structured communal prayer.
Although many people still feel that shul is relevant for men only, the trend in Orthodoxy is for women to be more active in communal life, and shul is at the center of it. Women today are not necessarily concerned only with their obligations. Many mitzvot from which women are exempt are being widely observed: Sefirat HaOmer, Sukkah and Torah study are some examples. Additionally, a basic Jewish education should make it possible for a woman to walk into shul at any time and know what the congregation is up to. If women don’t take their daughters to shul with them, how is this to be accomplished?
My unscientific study of the reasons women choose not to attend shul shows that if certain changes were made, many more women would come. Childcare, a later davening time and a more comfortable women’s section would certainly go a long way toward bringing more women to shul. Efforts to make davening more interesting (with more singing, perhaps?) would be appreciated by both men and women. Although sweeping changes are always slow to come (especially in the Orthodox world), individual communities can surely make their shuls more welcoming to women.
The Beis Yaakov schools were established to prevent a situation in which women become educated in secular studies, yet remain ignorant in Torah. Similarly, our shuls should not be empty of women, when our courthouses, offices, teachers’ rooms and batei midrash are full of them.