What Do Our Shuls Teach us – Modern Orthodoxy’s Hidden Curriculum

This is the second of a series of essays on the topic of “hidden curriculum” in the Modern Orthodox community. “Hidden curriculum” is an education term describing the unintentional and unexamined messages that students get from everything in a school except the classroom teaching. In my next essay I intend to address other sources of hidden curriculum, including announcements and employment practices.

In my last post, which you can find HERE, I showed that the language we use for teaching Torah sometimes teaches our community and our children an unintended “hidden curriculum” — that women are “outside” our community, which is composed of men. In this post, I address ways that the physical layout of our prayer spaces may do the same thing, and suggest ways that we can communicate that men and women are equally members of the Jewish people.

Half of my audience will say “Most of these things are obvious; everyone who cares already does them!” The other half of my audience will say “I’m against that hidden curriculum in theory, but these suggestions go way too far. They would require completely changing the way my community functions for insufficient reason.” To the former, I present the latter.

To all of you, I present my suggestions:

Never conduct tefillah without a women’s section. If your shul, school, or camp has women or girls in it often enough that you have a women’s or unisex bathroom, then you need a women’s section in your davening space, too. Otherwise, you’ll never know if “they would never come.” If you are planning davening for a conference, a simcha, or a shiva house, you need a women’s section. Clearly announce where it is located, in a way that is audible to both the men and the women. Then wait for everyone to get in place before starting. If your rabbi requires a mechitza for such an arrangement, make sure you have a portable one for community members to borrow, and that it gets delivered where it is needed in a timely fashion. If you are convening a “pick-up” minyan in an airport or a zoo, decide in advance where the women should stand and make that clear to everyone present. Even if you don’t know of any woman who wants to join you. When men pray without creating a space for women, the message is that women are not necessary for our community to function and are more of an inconvenience that we are willing to cope with. Women are not welcome, because they are a bother. When men create a space for women before beginning their prayers, the message is that a Jewish community cannot be complete without women and that women are welcome.

The women’s section should be as livable and usable as the men’s section in every way. The lights should be turned on in the women’s section whenever they are turned on in the men’s  section. The door to the women’s section should be unlocked whenever the door to the men’s section is unlocked. The heat or air conditioning should be on in the women’s section whenever it is on in the men’s section. If your mechitza has a “finished” side and an “unfinished” side, the “finished” side should face the women. The women’s section shouldn’t be the kiddush space. If the women’s section is dark, cold, hot, locked, unfinished, or in use for other purposes, the message is that women are not welcome and their unexpected arrival is a burden on the community. If the women’s section is comfortable and available, the message is that women are wanted and welcome.

Men should never be in the women’s section during davening unless it’s an emergency such that a woman would go into the men’s section for the same reason. Not to set up kiddush, not to daven, not to learn, not to give someone a message. Not even if there are no women present. (Bizarrely, I’ve been turned away from women’s sections on the grounds that the men have a prior right to learn there during minyan, so I don’t belong.) If the women’s section has men in it, the message is either that it’s okay to distract women while they pray or that women are not welcome at all (depending on whether the women are allowed to pray or asked to leave).

If your shul is used for other activities during the school day, the women’s section should be set up for davening during davening and then reset after, same as the men’s section. When the women’s section is set up for another event or activity while the men’s section is set up for tefillah, you are sending the message that men’s davening is more authentic and important than women’s davening. When both sections are equally set up for tefillah, the message is that everyone is welcome and everyone is here to pray.

If there are 100 chairs in your men’s section and 10 chairs in your women’s section, you have at least one of the following serious problems, and should set about solving them immediately:

Women and girls don’t feel welcome.

Women don’t have access to childcare.

Women are standing in the hall, trying to hear tefila and Torah reading, while men sit comfortably in chairs inside the room.

Women have given up and don’t come, because they don’t expect to have a seat.

Women and girls don’t know how to “do” weekday davening, since they’ve never been taught and/or have never been welcome in the past.

Nobody in your community is surprised or distressed by the absence from communal life of 50% of your population.

Even if nobody in your community perceives any of this as a problem (which is unlikely and problematic in its own right), a ratio of 100:10 is still a bad idea. A 100:10 ratio sends the message that women’s attendance at public prayer is 10 times less important than men’s attendance. A 50:50 ratio sends the message that men’s attendance and women’s attendance are equally important. Even if few women come, the shul should still be set up 50:50; a 50:50 ratio with the women’s side mostly empty sends the message that women’s non-attendance is a problem, which will help motivate the community to change it.

If the women’s section is behind the men’s section, rearrange as soon as is feasible. If your women’s section is behind the men, then the closest a hearing-impaired woman can get to the baal tefila or baal keriya is 15 feet behind him, with him facing the other way. She has no hope of understanding what he’s saying. That sends the message that it doesn’t matter to us whether elderly and handicapped women can understand what is happening in shul. In addition to the practical issues of hearing and seeing, making some people sit behind other people has symbolic meaning in the United States in the wake of the 20th century, and it is a terrible symbol. Is that really the message we want to send? When you convert your shul to side-by-side, you are sending a message of equal importance and also facilitating access for women to hear and see.

The women’s section should not be used for any purpose that would not be acceptable in the men’s section. If your women’s section is a place where people go because they wish to be in a place without kedushat beit keneset, then you have excluded the women from the prayer community. Literally. You will know when your women’s section is a good place to pray and learn when you announce that an event will take place in the shul and everyone says “in the men’s section or the women’s section?” because they truly can’t guess.

Build a mechitza that is easier for the women to see through and over than for the men. The average woman is 5 feet 5 inches. The average man is 5 feet 10 inches. A very common mechitza structure has a horizontal bar 5 feet off the ground and a semitransparent curtain covering the space between 3.5 and 5 feet off the ground. If your mechitza is like that, the average man can easily see over and through the mechitza, but the average woman has a solid bar immediately in front of her eyes when she tries to see what’s going on. That’s completely backwards. It should be easier for women to see the sefer Torah than it is for men to see women’s bodies.

Women should have the same access to the ancillary activities of minyan that men do. If you have a tzedakah box in shul, it should be equally accessible from the men’s section and women’s section, or you need two of them. If the rabbi greets the men and shmoozes with them, he should greet and shmooze with the women, too. If your davening space has tables and books on the men’s side, there should be tables and books on the women’s side, too. If women’s experience of shul lacks books, a rabbi, and the opportunity to give tzedakah, then the message is that women’s mitzvot, connection to Judaism, and learning are less important than men’s. We don’t believe that, so let’s stop saying it, in word or deed.

I hope that I have given you food for thought and discussion. Please share this document with your rabbis, your teachers, and your colleagues. Talk about what messages you want to send and how to send them. Then implement those ideas, see if they work, and try again. We can improve our education and messaging if we choose, but it won’t happen by chance. It is my hope and prayer that this conversation will help the Jewish People to learn Torah and serve Hashem in a unified way. Not as “men” and “women”, but as a community.

About the Author
Deborah Klapper holds an AB from Harvard University and a Scholars' Circle certificate from Drisha Institute. She lives, learns, and teaches in Sharon, MA.
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