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Save my seat

Here’s a somewhat obscure, but fun fact about me: I really like going to mincha (afternoon prayer services) during the week – and it’s a bonus when the timing is aligned so that maariv (the evening prayer services) is recited immediately after. The selection of required prayers is concise, the words are familiar, the time of day when it can be recited is fluid (and generally less harried than its morning counterpart), and the motions come naturally. I came to love it during high school when the all-girls institution I attended built mincha time into our daily class schedule. Every afternoon, for the second time in the day, we filled the main part of the sanctuary, taking our rightful seats.

As a young adult living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I popped into mincha at several local synagogues quite frequently. Most of the time, most men graciously (but mistakenly) assumed that my presence on a random Tuesday afternoon meant that I was there out of a personal obligation to recite kaddish (the prayer recited during the mourning period after the death of an immediate family member, and thereafter commemorating their yahrzeit, the Hebrew date anniversary of their death). In these synagogues, the custom didn’t allow for a woman to recite kaddish on her own, so they wanted to designate a man to chant it on my behalf, rather than skipping over it. In every case they nodded in my direction, acknowledging my presence as I quietly took a seat in the pew, a lone presence, in the designated women’s section. 

I identify as an Orthodox feminist because as an Orthodox Jew, regardless of my gender (or maybe in spite of it), I know that I have a rightful place in my community and all of its institutions, which in turn will help make Orthodox Judaism more vibrant and equitable. 

When I was a student at Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, on the days when I had class, which took place at the men’s campus, I would frequently “catch” mincha. One semester, I audited a Talmud class taught by Rabbi Yaakov Elman, z”l. I was the only woman in the class, in a room crammed with 25 other men. At the end of class, a student inquired if there were enough men to participate in a minyan (quorum of 10 males over age 13). As my classmates instantly erupted in prayer, I took my pocket siddur (prayer book) and stood in the doorway of the classroom (because there was no mechitza) and followed along. When I went back to my desk to collect my bag and jacket, Rabbi Elman announced to the class that since the room did not have the status of a beit knesset (synagogue), there was no need for a mechitza or for me to move from my spot. I remained at my seat for the remainder of the semester. 

Fast-forward to the recent pre-pandemic days, when I still tried to schedule my afternoon so I could pop into my own synagogue for mincha, in my current home community in suburban Maryland. Sometimes I was there as a “kaddish buddy,” keeping a friend company as she exercised her obligation to recite the prayer after the passing of her mother. Other times, I swung by just because the timing neatly fit into my schedule. Once a year, I make a pointed effort to mark my mother’s yahrzeit. Every time, there is a seat for me on my side of the respectfully constructed mechitza

This variation in my experiences attending mincha in different settings over the years has reinforced my conviction that my identity as an Orthodox feminist isn’t driven by anger or a need to bring in “outside” ideals into my religious life (although sometimes that happens organically). I identify as an Orthodox feminist because as an Orthodox Jew, regardless of my gender (or maybe in spite of it), I know that I have a rightful place in my community and all of its institutions, which in turn will help make Orthodox Judaism more vibrant and equitable. 

And yet, a recent experience demonstrated to me that too many Orthodox synagogues still have not gotten the message that women are entitled to our rightful spots. 

I appreciated their effort, and wanted to feel like I belonged, but the tight space was anything but inviting. By the looks of the peeling paint, exposed rust spots and possible mold, it was clear that this historic building desperately needed repair.

While visiting my former Manhattan stomping grounds, I happened upon a synagogue I never knew existed. Despite having walked through this neighborhood countless times over the years, its presence somehow always escaped my notice. But this time, as I passed by, I recognized the styled heavy doors, noting an older man standing out front. I stopped to snap a picture of the synagogue’s historic signage and take in the view of the building. The man asked me if I was looking for someone. I instinctively responded that I was looking for mincha. He brightened, and said, “Come in! They just started. But we don’t have a women’s section. You will have to stand in the foyer space outside the men.”

Undeterred, I stepped into the building and approached the sanctuary door, where I wedged my foot to hold it open so I could hear. I followed along without a prayer book, scrolling mincha on my cell phone. After a minute, a younger fellow invited me in. “We have a spot for you in here,” he said. Surprised, I responded (maybe a bit incredulously), “You have a spot for me?” He waved me in and motioned toward a cut out area that turned out to be the entrance to a stairwell leading to a basement. The older man handed me a prayer book. “Here, use this instead of your phone,” and took his spot just a few feet away. 

I appreciated their effort, and wanted to feel like I belonged, but the tight space was anything but inviting. By the looks of the peeling paint, exposed rust spots and possible mold, it was clear that this historic building desperately needed repair. The mop propped against the wall didn’t help either. Between mincha and maariv, the older gentleman who was collecting tzedaka came to check on me. I smiled underneath my Covid mask and added a few dollars to his collection. When the younger man returned, considerately offering to bring me a chair, I politely declined. At the end of the service a couple of the men asked where I was from. “Tzadaikes” (righteous woman) the older man addressed me. I thanked them and off I went. 

However, for members of the Orthodox community for whom mechitza is necessary for services, and who care about sustaining Orthodoxy: If we value women’s involvement in Orthodox life, if we care about building community through ritual – one of the core values and functions of the synagogue – then every single self-proclaimed Orthodox synagogue must ensure there is always a respectful space reserved for women.

I am familiar with far too many instances when men use women’s prayer spaces to spread out, catch up, or as a convenient spot to drop their coats and other gear, simply because women are not present. I am now also familiar with walking into an Orthodox synagogue, to find there is no section reserved for women. (For those wondering, the synagogue in this story has long ceased to hold Shabbat services, and only meets on weekday afternoons/evenings.) And to be sure, if one feels that the mechitza is unnecessary, because its very presence is archaic, exclusionary and oppressive (which, when structured poorly, sometimes is), then this article is not for you. (Though I thank you for reading this far along.) 

However, for members of the Orthodox community for whom mechitza is necessary for services, and who care about sustaining Orthodoxy: If we value women’s involvement in Orthodox life, if we care about building community through ritual – one of the core values and functions of the synagogue – then every single self-proclaimed Orthodox synagogue must ensure there is always a respectful space reserved for women. This is true whether women attend regularly, sporadically, or very seldom. When women show up, we should be welcomed without judgment, regardless of the reason or frequency of our attendance, just as  any man would be.

I see additional takeaways in the context of the pandemic: In June 2020, when synagogues began to reopen, too many Orthodox institutions demonstrated that women’s presence was simply not part of their calculus. In places where numbers were capped at attendance of 10, the vast majority of Orthodox synagogues said women could not return until attendance numbers could safely increase. Yes, a minyan requires a quorum of men, but prayer can happen without a quorum of men, albeit omitting certain prayers. Put bluntly women were not value added. Some synagogues were able to expand their maximum to 12 and in many (but not all) cases, reserved those two additional spots for women, after filling the first 10 with men. 

In synagogues where women have not yet returned in pre-pandemic numbers, clergy and lay-leaders alike should take a moment to do a bit of soul searching, reflect on the message conveyed by their policy (conscious or unconscious), and take active steps to recruit women to return to the pews. 

The bottom line is that too few synagogue leaders demonstrated that women are valued and key components to creating vibrant communities, and many never even offered women a say in the decision making process. These (in)actions reinforced the message that women don’t require a place in Orthodox synagogues and are simply treated as an accommodation, or worse, an afterthought. I remain disappointed, and even angered at times, by this fundamental lack of consideration. 

In synagogues where women have not yet returned in pre-pandemic numbers, clergy and lay-leaders alike should take a moment to do a bit of soul searching, reflect on the message conveyed by their policy (conscious or unconscious), and take active steps to recruit women to return to the pews. 

Back to my Manhattan experience, it really is not worth naming the synagogue. What I experienced at this synagogue could have happened in any city in any country around the world, because the problem is, in fact, at the root of Orthodoxy’s patriarchal assumptions and practices. That synagogue is already filled with men of good will – as many are. All that’s missing is a mechitza and some chairs. I hope to return on a future trip. And I hope they’ll save my seat.

 

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About the Author
Daphne Lazar Price is the Executive Director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) and an adjunct professor of Jewish Law at Georgetown University Law Center. She is active in the Orthodox community in her hometown of Silver Spring, MD, where she lives with her husband and two children.
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