Through the Looking Glass of the Mechitza

A writer laments her invisibility in Modern Orthodoxy.

For me, teen minyan on Shabbat goes something like this: I get there promptly at the beginning of services — 9:30 a.m. My entering the room makes absolutely no difference — only boys are counted in the quorum. At this point I am completely alone on my side of the mechitza, the partition that separates women and men in an Orthodox synagogue. Before services begin, I have to ask the leader of the service to slide the podium over so that it’s in the center of the mechitza as opposed to the center of the boys’ side—a set up I would consider a norm in Modern Orthodoxy.

The service continues and as the time for Torah reading approaches, someone takes the Torah around the boys’ side. I must jump if I wish to reach over the mechitza and kiss the Torah. The layning (Torah reading) is a bitter point for me. The boys assist, compliment and tease each other — laughing, joking and living the rituals; they literally own the room. I am a nothing.

By Musaf (the closing service) there are four girls in the room, sometimes five. One or two girls, usually me, get to recite two paragraphs that comprise the prayer for the State of Israel. I stand on my side, fairly invisible to the majority of the participants; maybe two boys will mutter an Amen.

The service ends and one of the boys rises and begins to dole out aliyot for the boys to read next week: “Who will be here next week?” he asks. (I will.) “Who can layn?” (I can.) “Who wants shlishi (the third aliyah)?” (I do.) “OK, great, we're done. Who wants to say Kiddush?” (Me.) None of these silent cries for religious participation are ever heard, of course, and kiddush is served without anyone wondering why the ratio for guys to girls is almost three to one.

What I don’t understand — it really does baffle me — is how we call ourselves Modern Orthodox. This patriarchal design we call a religious experience is not reflective of modern society; it’s as anachronistic as possible. The few allowances—the girls’ dvar Torah and the prayer for the State of Israel—take some of the sting out of the experience of invisibility, yet I still find myself perpetually irked. The caging restrictions are conducive to the small number girls present — why come when you mean nothing to the service?

The bottom line is this: Girls are not encouraged to show up to synagogue, which is precisely why they don’t. Teenagers of both genders have no real responsibilities. The only real reason for an observant teen not to go to shul is to sleep late. So why is it that girls use that excuse so willingly and boys actually show up? Our society is not only barring girls from doing anything, but expressing complete and total indifference towards us when we do attend services. 

The height of my religiosity was my bat mitzvah. Looking back at what I went through, I don’t know how I was blessed to have it happen the way that it did. I decided to layn; I’m fairly stubborn and I simply said, “My male friends did it, so will I.” The why-shouldn’t-I aspect that most critics take never crossed my mind.

My parents believed in encouraging my desire, so after much talk with Rabbi Adam Starr (rabbi of the Young Israel of Toco Hills in Atlanta), I was able to layn in my living room during a women-only mincha service on a Shabbat afternoon. Holding the Torah and reading from it reminded me of what I loved about Judaism: the balance of tradition, with a Torah reading including rigidly maintained rituals, and the innovation of having me, a girl, lead.

So now, as I sit in shul every week with metaphorical duct tape stopping my mouth from singing out to God, I think about how Modern Orthodoxy is tipping its own scale. The movement is losing its modernity to satisfy the traditions of others, as the girls fade away without Modern Orthodoxy glancing back.

I know in my case certainly, and in the cases of many of my female peers, that this is an age where we will either fall into religion — or out. Thus I really don’t know how we can call ourselves Modern Orthodox and let every teenage girl grow up with no interest or opportunity and condone rabbinic indifference.

In modern society, we have women’s suffrage — women vote, women run organizations and women speak in public. So why should it be that suddenly the shul is the only area where women are denied such rights? When girls live in a time where gender roles are being demolished, no one associated with such modernity is going to want to connect to religion. As members of Modern Orthodoxy, we care so much about not upsetting the boundaries set up by the other more stringent sects of religions that we lose ourselves — and our girls.

I am a teenager; believe me when I say I know about peer pressure. Yet, some part of me thought that it only applied to clothing brands and parties, not religious denominations; I guess I was wrong. I am saddened that in my progressive minyan I still cannot hold the Torah, recite a blessing from the bima or participate in any aspect of the minyan that I punctually attend.

My male peers obviously understand this, as they literally sing out every morning, “Thank God for not making me a woman.” Yet we make no changes in the services for the sake of this tradition and that callousness pushes the limit. Why are we so ashamed to house religious feminism and religious freedom in our denomination? Why do we act in fear of fear what others say at the expense of our girls’ religious practices? Why do we try oh so much harder to say “no” rather than “yes”?

Does anyone realize that if this keeps up, there will be no future movement because there will be no girls who know or care about any of this religion — and that it is your fault, Modern Orthodox society, not ours! 

author's bio: 
  Eden Farber is a freshman at the Yeshiva Atlanta High School in Atlanta. 


Submitted by Yael on Thu, 05/10/2012 - 6:52pm

Great article, Eden, and thank you for opening up this important conversation. How does the Torah see a woman's role in the community? To what extent does our community respect and promote that role? I wonder whether the boys in that Teen Minyan will grow up any more committed to Judaism and/or Halacha than the girls who are at home, sleeping in late. As a young Jewish woman, I find that my peers, men and women alike, are struggling to connect to Judaism in a real way, a way that helps them to live meaningful and happy lives. Some of them have given up on Torah altogether, rejecting it as a mindless religion with nothing to offer. Others go through the motions. They go to synagogue, eat kosher food (for the most part), and meet for communal Shabbat meals. However, they live a Torah that is habitual and unreflective. Their Halachic practices do not lead to conversations about justice, happiness, and how to live a good life. Others, at all levels of Halachic practice, believe deeply that Torah has something to offer, that the wisdom of our tradition can help us to live happier and more meaningful lives. However, they struggle to access that wisdom, frustrated with leadership whose teachings are at best unclear and at worst offensive. The mainstream Modern Orthodox community teaches Halacha as a set of rules to be followed, however, few leaders encourage their communities to reflect on those rules, and to be involved in understanding, influencing, and being influenced by the Halachic process. This is where I'll come back to women and our role. I've been thinking about this a lot this year, and I am far from achieving clarity on the topic, so I'm about to raise more questions than I can answer. I'm wondering if anyone in the Jewish community understands his or her role in that community. Ok, so men read the Torah. They are involved in actions that we call community. But is community merely a set of actions to be done, a weekly Torah reading here, an aliyah there? Or is there more to it? And if so, what is that "more"? What would a true Torah community look like? And where do men and women fit in, what are their roles and how are they alike and different? Hope I get the chance to speak about this with you in person soon! :) ~yael
Submitted by Daniel W on Thu, 05/10/2012 - 7:19pm

[I apologize for the wall of text; the comments don't seem to handle paragraph breaks.] As a one-time Gabbai of my Shul's youth Minyan and later the gabbai and Orthodox community president at Hillel in college, I found that I - the boy - asked some of the very same questions. I knew very well how to engage other guys, but had not a clue about what to offer the women. I figured that the best I could do for a youth or college Davening would be to make it as much like a regular Shul davening so that everyone in attendence could come out of the Minyan knowing how things work when they make it to Shul in a real community later in life - on either side of the Mechitza. <br> So I ask you, Eden - do you think that your teen Minyan experience is representative of main-Shul-Minyan experiences in modern Orthodox Shuls around the country? You talk about constantly needing to reset the Shul's physical orientation, the boys constantly talking, joking, and having fun around the rituals (fun as that may be, I doubt that's the decorum in a more adult Minyan); dare I ask if the Mechitza there is a more symbolic separation or really more of a wall? You write in yearning for the opportunity to participate religiously. I will offer you two avenues to explore. 1) In many Shuls, the women's section is smaller than the men's, accurately reflecting the regular attendence split. Yet it's not that the women were less active or commited in general; rather, just to communal Davening. There was plenty of participation in learning, classes, social events, Onegs, etc. - opportunities to feel spiritually, emotionally, and physically connected to the community and Judiasm in non-Minyan settings. Though you may yearn for something attainable only in a locale where there are enough like-minded souls to gather women together in prayer, perhaps you can find an outlet in other areas of Jewish practice. Perhaps you already do. But this is an insufficient answer, as it smacks of "you can already do this, this, and that, why would you want more?" 2) Shabbos day at YITH, both sides of the Mechitza can get packed to capacity with equal numbers of seats on each side. True they are not Davening from the Amud, nor are they Layning, but I would hope that the women do indeed feel connected to what's going on in the room. Perhaps you would benefit from an atmosphere where women are enthusiastically present. I presume you have already spoken with other teen and twenties who attend regularly to ask them why they do so. I wonder what Shul atmosphere they appreciate best. Finally, one particular metaphor I must object to is the "duct tape stopping my mouth from singing out to God". My wife woefully tells me of all the locations where this is true - where women don't raise their voices to speak, let alone sing, in deference to the men elsewhere in the room. Modern Orthodox Shuls, of all places, are ones where you should feel no shame and instead should see support of raising your voice in song and prayer, even if it tends to be in harmony with a male Chazzan. As I said before, I didn't know then, nor do I know now, exactly what to offer women in the Shul setting, other than the "separate but equal" option of a self-standing women's Tefillah. For my own part, as a Chazzan, I always strive to present myself in a way that is appreciate by all those in the room, and that is encouraging of men and women alike to sing along. And if the Amud is next to the Mechitza, I hope you're standing right there next to me (ok, to my wife, then).
Submitted by Suzi on Sun, 06/10/2012 - 9:25pm

You, Daniel, aren't unique, but neither is your attitude normative, either in YITH or in Modern Orthodoxy in general. I was recently told, in another synagogue in another city, that I was welcome to attend and say Kaddish for my mother, but I had to be quiet enough that the men present could not hear my voice. Eden is extremely precocious. It took me decades to reach the level of indignation she feels as a young teen. And I applaud her insights and hope she will continue to push the boundaries.
Submitted by David Almog on Fri, 05/11/2012 - 6:13am

Kol Hakavod Eden
Submitted by Joy on Fri, 05/11/2012 - 3:35pm

I feel your pain and that's how I related to Judaism for years. I go to shul almost every friday night, even though im the only woman. i sit off to the side behind a makeshift mechitza while men litterally walt in behind me to get siddurs. But i still go because I realized that shul isn't about making jokes with your friends or any of that stuff. shul is a chance to connect with God on a deeper level. and I dont need to be recognized by a kehila to do that. because God sees everyone in shul, no matter how thick the mechitza. To me, the way I participate in a service is to connect, to really connect with God. And yes, sometimes I'd love it if it were easier to kiss the torah or hear the dvar torah. But this is where I am now and it's up to me to make the best of what religion gives me. But on your thought I'd suggest a partnership minyan. They're endorsed by many rabbis and they're a minyan with no mechitza where both sexes participate in the service- all according to halacha. Check it out, you might be more satisfied!
Submitted by jammie on Mon, 05/14/2012 - 10:41am

why isnt keeping kosher, shabbat, tznius, ect. enough for you? why dont we ever hear guys complaining that they cant light shabbat candles or take challah? but its a constant fight to get woman more involved in mens practices. why cant we beautify the mitzvot we already have instead of trying to take on new ones that arent even meant for women. But, it is factual that women are never encouraged to attend services, however in Israel, women dont go to shul, they never really have. i think this is more of a "people want what they cant/shouldn't have situation" how about you look for other things to concentrate on that you can actually access. im not discouraging you from going to shul, its beautiful that you love it so much, but dont wine about something unattainable. this article is very well written, and you got your point across very well.
Submitted by Ze'ev on Sun, 07/01/2012 - 8:21am

I'm not a woman, but kosher shabbat and tzniut as practiced all come off as negative commandments. Yes, zachor is a positive, but can she say kiddush? Havdala? No. Would you be content to find your Jewish expresion solely in not doing things? As for men wanting to light candles and take challah: THEY CAN!
Submitted by Justine Markman on Mon, 05/14/2012 - 12:09pm

I appreciate the frustration that I sometimes share. But who taught you about davening? Where did your perspective (that davening is about participation or kissing the torah or palling around with the gals) come from? I've always been taught/learned that davening is about connecting with Hashem. I find it indicative that you didn't mention Hashem once....
Submitted by rebeccah appelbaum on Tue, 05/15/2012 - 2:55pm

very well put - not just because i commiserate, but as a high school teacher, y first thought was that your piece was extremely articulate and well written. I enjoyed reading it immensely. Now please read, but then disregard the negative, whether passively or actively, messages above. You have real concerns that are echoed or remain un-echoed all across this country - and it is a huge problem that people seem to want to ignore. i don't have a solution for you - but the more people talk about this (and repost it on facebook) the more we will have small change - and they will more often start to come from others, and even from those on the other side of the mechitza. I remember the first time i noticed the gabbai at college checking to see if the women had also finished shemoneh esrei before telling the chazan to continue. I never even thought to expect this until I saw it. This and more will keep happening as long as people like you share your experiences (and of course in such a meaningful way). Thank You.
Submitted by Deborah Kornfeld on Fri, 05/18/2012 - 1:56pm

Dear Eden, I am a grown woman with grandchildren and still struggle with the same issues. In my town, women's participation in services is limited to little girls standing on the Bimah singing Hatikvah at the end of the Shabbat morning service and that is new. I have been told that I "don't count" when coming to shul to say Kaddish. We have a women's study group that has discussed women's participation. Some women are very content with the situation as it stands and some women are yearning for more. One of my daughter's lives near a "partnership" minyan and the Mechiza is right down the middle, women lead every part of the service that has been designated as halachically ok and women lead Torah learning from the bimah, when I am there it feels just right. Davening can be a solidary spiritual experience and for that- women can stay home and daven, but when you go to synagogue - you go for community and it is wonderful to feel that you are an integral part of that community. So, Eden- keep striving and struggling and I hope that you find a place in Judaism that allows you to hold on to tradition and to be true to yourself.
Submitted by Sherilyn on Fri, 05/18/2012 - 6:28pm

This is a wonderful article. As a 16 year old conservadox girl (I say this because although I am conservative, I have begun to practice the laws of tzniut stricter than before, skirts to knees, etc.) I can say I have been to services in both. When I was little, I only went to an orthodox temple. I always accepted the fact that the men were on the other side. Then they moved the torah to the man's side permanently. It seemed so weird, so cold and indifferent to the women who attended weekly. It was around this time that I started attending my conservative temple. How different it was! Women stood on the bimah and read from the Torah. Girls my age led services beautifully. I was jealous that I had not been brought up reading from the Torah as they had. I recently read an aliyah for the first time in front of a congregation. I did fumble a little, but the feeling I got, being up there so close to G-d was unbelievable. In my eyes, I don't really think G-d would begrudge women this happiness I felt. It wasn't a sin, I was closer to G-d than ever before. I'd love to talk to you more, you can email me at :)
Submitted by Jeffrey Sokolow on Tue, 06/12/2012 - 5:27am

Kol ha-kavod, Eden. You raise important points and write incredibly well. I predict you will go far.
Submitted by Susi on Sun, 06/17/2012 - 12:18am

Mark, Thanks for taking this up …In tnikhing about why we are having difficulties attracting members, I turned my mind to what brings people to a shul and your 4 points are all valid, but I think there is one more less tangible point but which has a major impact on this issue: the concept of inspiration.People come to shul to be inspired and they naturally look to the rabbi to do this. Sure, he can be a great guy and answer questions, but these days I think people are looking for that extra oomph from their shul experience. In asking around, I think that people are happy to come to a shul with a good atmosphere, quiet davening etc, but what really makes them get up and come is that sense of inspiration from the rabbi. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the rabbi needs to be a great orator and there have been many shuls with rabbis that have only mediocre sermon skills, but there needs to be some sort of charisma coming from the rabbi that inspires people to want to more with their Yiddishkeit. People want to feel uplifted from their shul experience, and somehow I think this is rabbi-driven rather than Board-driven.If a shul’s membership increases by a large percentage, people would comment that the rabbi is doing a great job – so if this is the case, then does the reverse apply?What do you think?
Submitted by Taleh on Sun, 06/17/2012 - 3:53am

Sam, I agree that the Rabbi is a big part of the equation and pllosnaery I think it's important that the orientation/drashos/sermons be growth oriented, but it has to be at the right pace with the recognition that not everybody is growing at the same speed. It could take a few years before the Rabbi is familiar and comfortable with the Shul's growth-orientation and knows the right amount of inspiration/motivation to apply.I think that the president/board still bears a great deal of the responsibility for growth and it may be unfair to place so much of the responsibility on the Rabbi. There are many factors that go into a Shul's popularity and it is often difficult for particular shuls to grow in neighborhoods with many choices. Perhaps it makes sense to get out of the building and talk to your friends in other Shuls and ask their opinion as to why your shul is not drawing a larger membership.
Submitted by Devendra on Sun, 06/17/2012 - 9:44am

Bob, it gets tricky here baucese it's a little bit of an uncomfortable situation treating the Rav as an employee. The more you specify the more employee-like the Rav becomes. You have to find a middle ground between making it clear what your expectations are while at the same time leaving the Rav a little room so that he can establish and maintain adequate authority after he is hired.It's nuanced like most SP issues and perhaps it needs it's own post.
Submitted by Ilan Wolff on Thu, 06/28/2012 - 4:40pm

Your article was excellent. I hadn't really thought about feminism in Judaism until entering SAR High-school at the start of ninth grade. I met a few girls, who were very strong feminists, and we talked about these issues. I've come to the conclusion, that if god is moral, (and I wouldn't worship any other kind) doesn't want discrimination. Girls are entitled to take part in Judaism, the same way that us guys are. Some of the hate-comments, were absolutely ridiculous, "You don't hear guys complaining about not being able to light shabbos candles." I mean, come on. Guys don't complain about not lighting shabbos candles, because frankly, it doesn't matter to us in the slightest. But for those of you guys who are really itching to light those shabbos candles, by all means, go ahead. I won't stop you, I promise. On a gemura class shabbaton. I attended a partnership minyan called Shachar. The davening was beautiful, and it was an enlightening experience. I encourage you to try a partnership minyan if you can find one near you. I really enjoyed reading your article, and keep fighting for your religious rights.
Submitted by Roberta Kwall on Fri, 07/27/2012 - 12:32pm

Dear Eden- I am a 57 year old female law professor and I just received your post via your father. The reason he sent it to me is because I asked him to read a draft of a law review article I am publishing in the Cardozo Law Review entitled: The Cultural Analysis Paradigm: Women and Synagogue Ritual as a Case Study. I wrote the article because of young women like you. It argues that not only is there a basis in the tradition for women laining and receiving aliyot, but that Modern Orthodox shules need to re-think the current norms they invoke if they want to want to retain--and even attract---women with feelings such as yourself. My arguments are supported by scholars in Israel but in the States, I'm not aware of anyone who has embraced this perspective. A shame. Yasher co'chet to you. Keep fighting for what you believe! Roberta Kwall, DePaul University College of Law
Submitted by Yonah Rossman on Thu, 10/18/2012 - 6:26am

I don''t think the problem is that tfilla is not run by women I think its that you're told to sit on "the other side of the mechitza". You are told to have a passive role rather than an active one. So what do you do about that? Well, there is one possibility - recreate davening. Unfortunately or not that is not going to happen. It is not an option. This is the way its been done for hundreds of years and so it will continue. It is halacha - our guideline from Hashem on how to work his world. We cannot change that. Davening must be separate and it is lead by the men. So now let us find another option. If you are told that you cant be a leader in terms of davening(which you cant) - find something you can be a leader or have an active role at. Make a womens shiur before or after davening. Run tfilla groups for the young kids in the community! Teach them how to daven! make a tehilim group, organize a bikur cholim trip every shaabos to someone else in the community. Maybe you could be in charge of making a kiddush and running that after davening. My point is that just because davening isn't run by women doesn't mean you can't have an active role in judaism. It means you can't lead in davening. But, you can lead in other areas - and you should. Just don't expect somone else to do it for you. You need to lead and initiate one of the above examples or others for your community - not someone else.