Don’t Blame Women for Not Going to Shul

Lately, it seems like everyone wants to know why women don’t go to shul. The best way to answer this question is first to ask why men do go to shul.

I think that many men go to shul out a sense of obligation. In orthodox Judaism, women are not obligated to go to shul. If the men were not obligated they wouldn’t go either.

Some men go to shul because they like to participate in the services. They like to lead, they like to be the gabbai, they like to get hagbaah, they like to dole out misheberachs, whatever. In orthodox Judaism, women get none of these opportunities. Some men wouldn’t go if they could not participate meaningfully in the services either.

Other men go to shul for social reasons. They see the same people every day and they are like a club. On Shabbos they have a little kiddush club and they shmooze together bein gavra l’gavra. It’s social. A lot of men wouldn’t go to shul if they had no friends to shmooze with either. Very few men would go to shul if they had to sit alone the entire service and not see anyone they knew. Sparse attendance by women is a vicious cycle. Only a few women come to shul and they have no one to socialize with. Do any women join the kiddush clubs? Are they outside shmoozing with their friends? Do they get the good food at the kiddush after shul? IS the food appealing to women? Not usually. The social aspect of shul for women is not as robust as it is for men. Many men would not go to shul if their social experience would be identical to the social experience of women.

This all comes before discussing the length of service, seating placement, and childcare. If women wanted to come to shul for the same reasons men want to come to shul those issues would be resolved quickly.

The plain truth is that you cannot even compare the male shul experience with the female Jewish experience.

The lingering question is whether we should do something about it or not.

Should women get honors in shul? Is it worthwhile to change tradition so that more women come to shul? Should we obligate women in shul attendance? Should we institute co-ed kiddush clubs?

These are questions worth asking. I have a feeling that in most orthodox circles these questions will all be answered with a resounding “no thanks”. In which case, it is likely that we are resigning ourselves to lower attendance by women.

More to the point, women who want to be in communities with a greater female shul presence will likely be forced to turn to the fringes of orthodoxy or look beyond pure orthodox synagogues. Is that something we are willing to accept? I think the presumption is that orthodox Judaism is willing to pay that price. Personally, I think we should try to foster acceptable change to avoid this consequence.

About the Author
Eliyahu Fink J.D. is the Rabbi at the Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach in Venice California; Rabbi Fink is also a graduate of Loyola Law School of Los Angeles. Connect with Eliyahu Fink on Twitter, Facebook, and on his home blog at http://finkorswim.com.
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