Missing women, missing Judaism

The young children running around everywhere. The men who all kind of looked like me (well, skinnier for the most part!). The noise of the children and lively conversation. For a moment there this past Shabbat I thought I had stepped into a piece of Gan Eden, or at least into the Jerusalem I remembered falling in love with when I came here for the first time back in the summer of 2000. Finally, thought a part of me — the me who has mostly not been going to synagogue on Shabbat lately — here is home. Here is where you can be comfortable being a Jew.

That was outside in the courtyard. I think many people will laugh at me for what came to my mind next. We walked into the gym space where the Brit Milah we had come for was happening. At first — out of breath from a recent illness I am still recovering from — I sat on a chair near the door at the very edge of the gym space. A bit spaced out from shortness of breath, I only slowly started to take in my surroundings, and to notice it was mostly men around me. Strange, I thought. Maybe this isn’t the place for me after all if it’s mostly just men who are attracted to it.

And then I woke up to it: I was in an Orthodox setting. And although this turns out to have been one of those Orthodox minyanim that are pushing the boundaries of egalitarianism and did not have a mehitzah for example, the men and the women were indeed sitting on separate sides of the room. This was what people like me call a non-egalitarian prayer space — a place I normally will not daven in.

I have long thought of egalitarianism as an ethical issue, but I recognize how much work people in minyanim like this have done to try and address these issues. And it would be so great for me if I could find my way into joining a prayer community like this one. I admired it so much. I felt so much in common with the spirit of it. I loved that when it was over people quickly — almost competitively — “struck the set,” stacking and removing the chairs and Torah etc to return it to a gym. I love this Israeli ability to almost instantly make a home out of any space complete with food and then almost instantly move on. I loved that this community was clearly so filled with people knowledgeable about Jewish ritual and tradition that there was no need for a rabbi to act as a kind of pastor like I am used to from congregations in the States

But, I sadly realized that I can’t do it; I can’t make a home in this place. Even if I could completely resolve my ethical concerns with non-egalitarianism, I could not resolve my other, just as important, concerns. I don’t know whether to call them aesthetic or cultural or anti-patriarchal or what, but I know that I have no interest in being part of all-male spaces. I never have. Maybe it’s because the few all-male spaces I knew growing up — like public school bathrooms — tended to be the most dangerous ones, the ones where you were most likely to be cornered and forced to fight alone. I just like women. I prefer women not just romantically, but as friends and as colleagues (although I’ve also had some great male friends and colleagues over the year!). So, why would I possibly want my Holy spaces to be without them? It just doesn’t make sense to me on any level.

But it’s sad in a way. It’s sad in a way that characterizes many things about being part of that rare breed that is the liberal, observant Jew. It means it’s really hard for me to find community. There’s a Reform synagogue near us that my wife likes a lot and that is probably full of people I would like. Even most of their liturgy would probably be okay with me. But they don’t do musaf on Shabbat. And I really don’t understand what Shabbat communal prayer is without those crowing moments that are musaf.

But I was super glad to see this minyan on this one Shabbat. A nice place to visit, I just wouldn’t want to live there.

About the Author
Alan Abrams is a spiritual care educator who made Aliyah in 2014. He and his wife live in Jerusalem with their two "sabra" children. Alan is the founder of HavLi and the HaKen Institute, spiritual care education and research centers based in Jerusalem. A rabbi, Alan received a PhD in May 2019 from NYU for his dissertation on the theology of pastoral care. He was a business journalist in his first career.