Every Orthodox woman knows what it’s like to sit behind a “mechitza” – the divider that separates the women’s section of a synagogue from the men’s, creating a separate space where women are largely not seen, mostly not heard, and often unable to see or hear during prayer services. Few Orthodox men, however, have had the honor. When they have, they have occasionally written about the experience, whether it took place during Torah reading at a bat mitzvah service, at a packed lecture where the men’s section was overflowing, or at a daughter’s graduation ceremony in an ultra-Orthodox hall.
The nature of the mechitza is one of the factors that determine my choice of synagogues. But during my year of saying Kaddish for my late father, circumstances often didn’t allow me to be picky. My increased synagogue attendance during that year expanded my bank of mechitza experiences considerably, and since many of my mechitza encounters took place on weekdays, I was able to document what I saw (or couldn’t see) from my vantage point in the women’s section, something I could never do on Shabbat and holidays, when photography is forbidden. So after writing about the act of saying Kaddish itself and ruminating on not being counted as tenth for a minyan, I would like to show and tell you about my weekday Kaddish spaces: three synagogues in my neighborhood of Talpiot-Arnona in Jerusalem, and a handful of other synagogues in which I said Kaddish on a one-off basis.
Oh, Say Can You See? Feeling at Home at Beit Boyer
My home base for services during my Kaddish year was Kehilat Talpiot Hachadasha, commonly known as “Beit Boyer,” which was in the process of being renovated at the time. Founded in 1995, Beit Boyer included in its bylaws equal participation of women in synagogue ritual within the constraints of Jewish law, and divided its main prayer space lengthwise down the middle, with men on one side of the mechitza and women on the other.
During my Kaddish year, I stood in the front row of the women’s section, while my husband, who was also saying Kaddish during part of the year, stood alongside me on the other side of the mechitza. I had an unobstructed view of the front of the synagogue, with the ark, which was halfway on the women’s side, in full view. The table where the prayer leader stood and where the Torah was read was on the men’s side, but was positioned in front of the wooden divider that split the space, where it could be seen at an angle from the women’s section or through the latticework at the top of the mechitza panels. The ambiance was bright and airy and everything that happened during the Torah reading could be seen and heard.
As a nice egalitarian touch, a tzedakah box was placed on a chair in the front of the women’s section at Beit Boyer, in lieu of the one that was walked through the men’s section during the prayers. On Monday and Thursday mornings, when the Torah is publicly read, two (but not all) of the men who led the prayers would stop briefly at the front of the women’s section while carrying the Torah to or from the ark to give me a chance to kiss the scroll, rather than only carrying it through the men’s section. This small act made me feel seen and included, even if I was largely unseen.
At Beit Boyer, as at other Orthodox synagogues, I could not be counted in the prayer quorum, lead services, or participate in the public reading of the Torah, and not all of the male worshipers abided by the rabbi’s ruling that women can say Kaddish on their own if no male mourners are present. But where it was possible to make me feel physically included in the synagogue, steps were taken to include me. (It should be noted that in the time since the picture above was taken, the sanctuary has been fully renovated and the space is now even more visually inclusive for women. But that is for another blog post.)
Shock and Awe at Beit Knesset HaChursha
When the prayer hall of Beit Boyer was gutted for renovations, Beit Knesset HaChursha, the Sephardic synagogue a few blocks away, graciously extended its hospitality and our morning service relocated there for a number of weeks. A handful of worshipers from the host community, which holds its morning prayers at the crack of dawn, joined our later service. On the first day of our relocation, there was no women’s section at all; the entrance to it, which was located around the side of the building, was locked and no one had a key. For lack of an alternative, I sat on a plastic chair in the front lobby, between a book shelf and a wastepaper basket that stood near the sink where the priests ritually wash their hands. Sitting in the entranceway was a bit awkward, but actually quite comfortable. I had a full view of what was taking place inside the sanctuary through two large doors, beautiful stained-glass windows added a sense of grandeur, and I had no trouble hearing. Saying Kaddish, however, felt a bit hollow, as I was physically disconnected from the rest of the community.
While I was relatively sanguine in the entrance hall, the members of our host synagogue were less so, and arranged for the entrance to the women’s section to be unlocked the next day. After climbing a steep stairway, I found myself praying in a women’s gallery in a balcony for the first time in many years.
The balcony was positioned at the back of the synagogue, had a low wall, and was enclosed with glass panels. The glass was covered with cut metal shapes of the seven species with which the land of Israel is blessed. On top of that, a somewhat sheer curtain hung on the inner side of the glass, rendering the beautiful stained-glass windows and everything else in the sanctuary a hazy blur. The multiple layers of separation seemed unnecessary to me, since the purpose of the mechitza is either to physically separate men and women from mingling during prayers or to prevent men from seeing women during the service (there’s no parallel limitation on women seeing men), and when women are in a balcony at the back of the synagogue, neither is possible. To add to my discomfort, the air conditioning, which was running in the men’s section below, was off in the women’s section and the space was sweltering.
I pushed aside my feelings of discomfort and estrangement and concentrated on my prayers. While immersed in serene contemplation, I heard soft footsteps coming up the stairs behind me. Another woman must have arrived, I thought, and continued my prayers without turning around. Suddenly, there was a strange sound of whooshing water, followed by the telltale sound of a toilet flush. To my horror, I discovered that a man had come upstairs to relieve himself in a restroom that was essentially in the women’s section, and had neglected to shut the door.
That was the end of my serene contemplation that morning. I was shocked and repulsed. I knew that the act was not deliberate; the possibility that the women’s section might be occupied probably did not enter the man’s mind. But to me, it was the greatest possible statement that I was not meant to be in the synagogue. The next day, still shaken, I told the organizer of our service that I was more comfortable sitting in the lobby than in a balcony. I continued to sit in the hallway, between the bookshelf and the wastepaper basket, for the balance of my synagogue’s dislocation.
A Mixed Bag at Shai Agnon
On mornings when I needed to attend an earlier service, I found myself at the Tiferet Israel Shai Agnon Synagogue, named for the renowned Nobel laureate who had lived in Talpiot and donated some of his prize money for the renovation of the synagogue in the 1960s. At this synagogue, two slightly raised galleries for women flank the central men’s section, along the right and left sides of the space. The women sit facing the bimah platform in the center of the prayer space rather than facing the ark in the front of the synagogue, as do several rows of the men. The door to one of the two women’s sections was always unlocked (something that cannot be taken for granted) and the lights in that section were usually on (when they weren’t, though, it was impossible to find the switch, which is located in a distant closet next to the entrance of the building).
The mechitza at Shai Agnon is made up of carved wood panels that sit atop a low stone wall that runs along the elevated galleries on the sides of the synagogue. Imported from an 18th-century synagogue in Pesaro, Italy, it is painted blue and has flower-shaped cut-outs gilded with gold paint. Sitting behind the mechitza, you can see what’s happening in the sanctuary through the cut-outs and through the spaces below and between the panels, with the view varying, depending upon whether you are standing or sitting and your proximity to the mechitza itself.
When praying in the women’s section at Shai Agnon, it was somewhat difficult to see, somewhat difficult to hear, and being heard didn’t seem to be relevant (although to my great surprise, a man standing near the mechitza once rebuked me for not saying Kaddish loud enough for him to answer “Amen”). During Torah reading, I was particularly aware of the fact that in this synagogue, names of sick people are collected from the worshipers and are publicly announced in a prayer for their welfare. Women who might be in attendance, however, have no way of conveying the name of a loved one who is ill.
I had one particularly heartening mechitza experience at Shai Agnon. On some mornings, when there was overlap between services, the service that I attended would begin in the large front lobby and would move into the main sanctuary when it became available. On most mornings, I was the only woman present, and simply stood at the far end of the lobby during the preliminary services, far from the men. After Rosh Hashanah, however, when Selichot prayers are recited in the mornings, the prayers in the lobby lasted longer and a second woman began to attend, and soon after, three of us were standing awkwardly in the entrance hall during the opening prayers. The next day, we arrived at the synagogue and were greeted by a carved wooden room divider and plastic chairs that had been set up at the side of the lobby.
While it was possible that the men simply didn’t want to see us, I believe that they had noticed our need for a respectable place to pray and were motivated by the desire to provide one. I found the gesture surprisingly moving. Perhaps the ad hoc women’s section was a sign that we women can be the change we want to see; the more we attend synagogues during the week, the more synagogues may recognize our presence and find ways to accommodate our needs. Never in my life was I happier to sit behind a fence.
My weekday excursions into additional prayer spaces during my Kaddish year were few and far between. After an afternoon stroll on the beach in the fall, my husband and I, who were both members of the Kaddish club at the time, trudged to the Tel Aviv International Synagogue as the sun was beginning to set over the Mediterranean, in order to catch the afternoon prayers. Large membership recruitment signs on the doorways proudly announced that Tel Aviv’s “coolest shul” was “putting the HIGH back into the High Holy Days.” Unfortunately, however, Tel Aviv’s coolest shul did not put a women’s section into the small sanctuary it used for weekday prayers. I stood in the hallway outside the prayer space and listened from afar, cut off from the community that could answer my Kaddish, while my husband was inside reciting his. One of the congregants graciously brought out a chair for me, but on the whole, the experience was not cool in the least.
At 5:30 a.m. during a long weekend away, we found ourselves at the sparkling Hazon Ovadia synagogue in the tiny lower Galilee town of Givat Avni, the only place in the area where we could find a morning minyan. A digital clock counted down to sunrise, and the start of the silent devotional prayer was perfectly timed, beginning just as the sky glowed red and the sun began to peek through the tall arched windows. The marble floors gleamed and the ceiling was covered with dramatic triangular strips of LED lights, but I was not able to see the beautiful, modern ark nor any of the people praying, since the women’s section is in the back of the synagogue behind a wall topped with glass, carved metal grillwork, and a thick white curtain. The prayer experience was inspiring, as I saw birds and butterflies shaking off layers of sleep outside the picture windows, but it would have been nicer had I not felt so cut off from what was going on around me inside the synagogue.
On another occasion, I said Kaddish during the evening prayers in the women’s section of the Mitzpeh Ramot synagogue in Ramot, Jerusalem, when we attended a memorial lecture. As I stood behind a half wall topped by a semi-transparent curtain in a women’s section in the back of the synagogue, I had a veiled appreciation of the ark and the stained-glass windows in front of shadowy men. Unlike the two Sephardic synagogues in which I had found myself in the back of the sanctuary, where multiple layers of glass, metal, and fabric covered the front of the women’s section, in this Ashkenazic venue, a lacey curtain alone sufficed. It was moved aside completely and the women were invited into the men’s section, if they would like to sit there, when the lecture began.
Lastly, at a bar mitzvah celebration at the Kotel plaza, the open prayer space in front of the Western Wall, I discovered that the woven metal panels that once made up the mechitza had been replaced with bronze-colored panels with a menorah motif. Sturdy, low benches had been placed alongside the mechitza, so that women could stand on them safely as they peered over the top of the mechitza into the men’s section to see the bar mitzvah boy, rather than standing precariously on white plastic chairs, as had been the custom for many years. (In 2010, the Western Wall Heritage Commission undertook to replace the opaque barrier between the men and women with a mechitza that would enable women to see the proceedings at celebrations. The idea of one-way glass was abandoned quickly because it was incompatible with the bright Jerusalem sun, and a see-through alternative was never found. In the end, on a night in 2018, the opaque lattice-themed mechitza panels were replaced with equally opaque menorah-themed ones.)
When I forfeited my spot on one of the benches alongside the mechitza because not all of the bar mitzvah boy’s close relatives were able to see him read the Torah, my view of a bar mitzvah at the Kotel looked like this:
Where does your synagogue fit in?
The physical spaces in which I found myself on weekdays in Orthodox synagogues during my Kaddish year touched on a wide range of women’s experiences. One women’s section was open and inviting, with unobstructed visuals and sound. In others, my ability to see what was happening was restricted or even completely obscured. In another venue, there was no dedicated women’s space at all. And in my most extreme, admittedly atypical, experience, I was left with a silent scream in my head: For God’s sake, if you are going to pee in the women’s section, at least close the door!
What are the physical conditions in the women’s section of your Orthodox synagogue during the week? Is there a women’s section at all? If it exists, is it unlocked? Are the lights on? The heat? The air conditioning? Is the women’s section used as a coat room or storage area or is it a respectable prayer space? Do men take over the women’s section to get extra seating or use it as a place to study? Or is it always reserved for women, even if they are not there?
Can the women in the women’s section see what’s happening in the service? Can they hear? Can they see the Torah when it’s lifted after its reading? Can they touch or kiss it when it is carried through the synagogue? Do the women have adequate access to prayer books? If the men’s section has a tzedakah box (or tissue box or garbage can), is there one on the women’s side as well? Do women have a way to communicate with the men during the service if necessary?
If names are gathered for the public recitation of the prayer for the sick, do women have a way of submitting them? If there are no male mourners in a synagogue that has a policy that women cannot say Kaddish alone, and a woman mourner is behind a mechitza that prevents her from being seen by men, is there a way for her to let the men know that she is there and needs a man to recite Kaddish with her? If the women’s section is in a balcony that is reached only by stairs, is there an additional women’s section downstairs that is accessible to women with limited mobility?
If the answer to any of the above questions is “No,” there may be simple steps to take to make the women of your synagogue feel more included – whether they are attending synagogue because they are saying Kaddish or simply because they love to pray as part of a community and the logistics of their lives enable them to do so. Now that you have spent time in my women’s sections, perhaps it’s time to start a conversation in your community to see what can be done to improve the experience in yours.
Crowdsourcing: The images in this post are mostly of synagogues in which women have a limited view of the ark, the bimah, the prayer leader, and the Torah reader during services. I’m looking for photos of innovative Orthodox synagogues that afford women a particularly good view of the proceedings. If you pray in such a space and could send me a good-quality photo of the women’s section that could be published with credit, please contact me through the e-mail button on my blog or reach out to me on Facebook.
This post was written on the fourth anniversary of my father’s passing. May any increased sensitivity that results from its words and pictures be to the merit of Ze’ev ben Chaim Yosef Pasternak, known to most by his Yiddish name Velvel.