Stirred to action, behind the mechitzah

Her efforts to get used to separate seating for men and women never had a prayer of a chance

As I entered the room, I was directed outside. The minyan was improvised in someone’s home, so there was no actual mechitzah, and a couple chairs had been set up in another room. The window was carefully draped over with fabric, and I could only catch a glimpse here and there of what was happening on the other side. The men had dropped off their children in the room I was in, so I could only hear the shaliach tzibur through the intermittent silences in the children’s play. Each time a latecomer arrived, I would turn to look, hoping it would be another woman, but to my dismay I remained the only woman throughout the service.

The experience was uncomfortable, to say the least, and felt far removed from my experiences in Modern Orthodox settings which I had been attending for a little bit over a year, and where I felt pretty comfortable. Although the fact that I was on the non-participatory side of the mechitzah, that the women’s section was usually smaller and a bit to the side, would bother me, at the same time, I felt reassured by the fact that I had it pretty good. In the minyan I attended my last year of college, the mechitzah was not too high, and almost down the middle, so that although I could not participate, I could easily observe the action. I knew the men on the other side as great people and had no doubts about the fact that they respected me and valued my presence in the shul. But how different was it?

The surrounding circumstances allowed me to push some of my uncomfortable feelings to the back of my head. Yet they were still there, waiting to be addressed. It had always bothered me that in all Modern Orthodox synagogues I have been to, there have been significantly fewer women in attendance at any given time than men. Now, I was the only woman present, while the men’s section was spilling into the next room. Similarly, while I previously would have to crane my neck to see the Torah, I now had to either pull away a curtain or walk into the next room. Only when issues that had once bothered me to a greater degree were exaggerated, almost parodied, was I forced to deal with an issue that I could no longer ignore.

I had convinced myself that being less bothered by non-egalitarian services was a big step forward. I was more mature, less emotionally driven. I was being practical. It’s not that I still did not want to find an egalitarian option, but I was pushing it off for a later time. I now realize that repressing my emotions may not be a step forward. I may need to actually confront my issues head on in order to, if not find a solution, at least find an option that is a better fit for me.

The next morning I went to a Conservative synagogue for Shacharit services, and the words that went through my head were “I have regained my humanity.” While nobody had intentionally tried to disrespect me, I honestly felt that I had allowed others to take away my dignity the night before. I felt more true to myself than I had felt for a while.

About the Author
Josefin Dolsten currently lives in Jerusalem, where she is pursuing an MA in Jewish Studies and Religious Studies from Hebrew University. Previously she studied Government and Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University. She enjoys writing about religion and politics.
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