Our Side of the Mehitsah: An Open Letter

One of the main focuses of Jewish life in the Modern Orthodox community, at least among adults, is the synagogue. And yet, there are several aspects of synagogue life that alienate half of the Jewish population. Many synagogues do things that make women feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. These problems are not specific to my shul at home, but are general issues that my friends and I have experienced in various different communities.

You may have read my introduction so far and think that I am about to embark on a feminist rant. But I am not advocating for the abolishment of mehitsot, or the institution of women sheluhei tsibbur, or women rabbis, or anything else that should be controversial halakhically; that would be a topic for another article. The ideas for which I am advocating are ones that I think should be common sense, but apparently, based on general practice, are not. I am not advocating that we push the boundaries of women’s roles in shuls;rather, I am asking that women be treated with respect while they are within those boundaries.

One of the major problems I have seen in shuls is that there is often no women’s section for minyanim during the week. While most women do not go to minyanim daily, there are those who would like to, and there needs to be a space for them to daven. When women show up at shul and there is no mehitsah set up for them, they are either turned away or forced to wait as a mehitsah is brought from another room and put into place. In other shuls, the mehitsah is already in the room, but it is temporary and movable. Since many shuls have weekday shaharit minyanim in a beit midrash, the space is used for learning the rest of the day. The chairs and mehitsot are often moved to make room for learning, but are not set back up when the learning is finished. The women who go to minyan the next morning must then set up the women’s section from scratch every day. The need to set up the mehitsah delays davening and wastes everyone’s time. Additionally, the men setting up the mehitsah often grumble about needing to take the effort to do so, which makes these women feel uncomfortable and guilty about coming to minyan. If shuls want women to feel comfortable attending, there must be spaces where women can feel welcome and accommodated, and one step in doing so is to already have the women’s section ready for them when they come in the morning.

Even in shuls where there is a women’s section, there is sometimes no place for women to daven because there are men davening in the women’s section. This past summer, my family went on vacation and we all went to the local shul on a Monday evening. There was a women’s section set up, so my mother and I went to sit down. One of the members of the shul informed us that the men’s section usually overflows into the women’s section, and demanded that we leave so that the men would be able to daven where we were sitting. It could be argued that the man’s request was reasonable; after all, the men have a hiyyuv to daven with a minyan,while my mother and I do not. However, I believe that if there is a women’s section, it is logical that the space should be reserved for women. If men need to use that space then there should be an alternative space set aside for women to daven. In Sukkah 5:2, the Mishnah states that there was a “great improvement”[i]  for the simhat beit ha-sho’eivah. The Gemara there explains that the improvement was that a balcony was erected for the women to stand on during the celebration so that they would not mingle with the men. Before making the balcony, the hakhamim had tried to arrange it so that the women would be inside the azarah (courtyard) and the men would be outside, and later they tried the opposite, but that did not solve the problem. The balcony was a third attempt to separate the men and the women for the festivities.[ii] The hakhamim did not have to make the balcony; they could have told the women not to come to Har ha-Bayit at all. The fact that they made sure to have a space for the women is something that shuls today should try to emulate, despite any difficulties. If there is a legitimate need for the women to move, though, the request must be articulated in a respectful tone, instead of speaking as though to a second grader who is being kicked out of class for misbehaving. The man who was speaking to my mother and me might have been abnormally rude, but I have spoken to enough friends who have dealt with similar experiences to know that it is a common phenomenon and not an isolated incident.

Simply asking the men to leave the women’s section is also not always an option. A friend tells a story about how on one weekday morning she was forced to daven in a small area behind the women’s section because there were men sitting in it. In the middle of davening,the president of the shul noticed her presence and announced that the men should leave the women’s section so that she could daven there. Uncomfortable about the fact that she was singled out, my friend felt ashamed by the incident. Additionally, she heard that many of the men who were forced to move were very upset and said disparaging remarks about her. My friend had done nothing wrong, but this did not prevent the hard feelings when the men were asked to move. A better solution, therefore, would be to create the expectation that men will leave the women’s section for the women, or at least will designate a suitable alternative space for them.

Even among shuls that do have a women’s section that is solely dedicated to women, a common complaint is a lack of space. Women often feel like they are being packed in like sardines. It is not uncommon to find women’s sections with four chairs in an area of 4×7 feet. When four women are sitting there, along with their purses and winter coats, it is clear that the area can get tight. Women do not need a lot of space, especially since they do not need the room to put down a tallit and tefillin bag. However, room to take three steps back before the amidah would be appreciated. Many women dislike going to shul because they do not feel comfortable in such a small space.

A common response to my objections would be that since there are rarely women who come to davening on a weekday, it is not practical to have too much space for the women’s section because that space will not be used. The men, on the other hand, would actually use the space. My response to this claim is simple. This argument is part of a vicious cycle: Women do not come to weekday minyanim, so people do not make the space for them. However, what then occurs is that on the occasions when women do come to davening,they feel uncomfortable because of the lack of space and do not want to come to minyan again. Then, since these women stop coming to minyan, the space for them is not made. If we want to encourage women to come to weekday minyanim regularly, the cycle needs to break somewhere, and I believe that making women feel welcome in shul is the first step in the right direction.

Another unrelated, yet common, problem in shuls is that the women often do not know what is going on. One of the times of the year when this is the most relevant is on Tish’ah be-Av. Much of the service is unfamiliar because it is only recited once a year. Therefore, at times, in order to know what to do, like whether to sit or stand, it is necessary to follow the example of the leaders of the congregation. The difficulty arises in shuls where the mehitsot are tall, so that women who are sitting on the floor are unable to see what is happening in the men’s section. They are, therefore, unable to follow the example of those who are informed, and often cannot even see when the aron is open to know that they should be standing. Since the men can see what is happening, few realize that the women are confused and so no one announces what is happening. A related problem frequently occurs after keri’at ha-Torah (the reading of the Torah), when the congregation says “ve-zot ha-Torah.” In some shuls,the women are unable to see the Torah when it is being lifted and do not know when to say this phrase. In both of these cases, there is no malice felt toward the women and the inconvenience to them is unintentional. Yet, with some awareness, these issues can be easily resolved.

Just as the women do not always know what is going on in the men’s section, so too men do not know always know what is going on in the women’s section. This issue is most relevant when it comes to kaddish. I am aware that there are ongoing debates about whether women should even be saying kaddish at all. The fact is that in many Modern Orthodox shuls,it is accepted that women can and do say this prayer. Nevertheless, in some of these shuls,women will only say kaddish if there is a man saying kaddish as well. They will not, however, recite kaddish alone. A problem arises when there are no men saying kaddish because, in such situations, a woman who wants to say kaddish will feel unable to do so. Some shuls have the general practice of appointing a specific man to say kaddish when no one else is doing so, at least for the kaddish after Aleinu.[iii] For those shuls that accept this practice, perhaps they could also have an appointed man say kaddish when there might be a woman who may want to say it along with him.

A lack of awareness of the women’s section is also apparent when names are being submitted for a mi she-berakh or kel male rahamim. In many shuls,the hazzan pauses in the middle of the prayer, and people go up to the bimah to give names of sick or deceased people to be included in their respective tefillot. However, in many cases, no one goes to the women’s section to see if any of the women have names to include. In such a situation, if a woman has a name, she is forced to try to get the attention of one of the men so that he can go up to the bimah and submit the name for her. If she does not succeed in catching anyone’s eye, she is out of luck. Again, this problem could be easily solved by designating a person to go to the women’s section to see if anyone wants to contribute a name.

I have given numerous ideas in this article, and if you have seen the validity of some of my arguments, you are now hopefully thinking, “Ok, she has a point. Let’s change things.”  But before you do so, I have one final request: Ask the women what they want. While I have mentioned many complaints here, a large number of which are addressed to the men in the shuls, I recognize that many of these men do, in fact, want to do what is best for the women. Although there are exceptions, for the most part, the men’s hearts are in the right place. The problems arise when the men make the mistake of assuming that they know what the women want, without asking for any input from the women themselves. The Modern Orthodox community has recognized that women are capable of thinking, of having opinions, of expressing themselves. The existence of Stern College attests to that. It is high time for those opinions to be considered.

I hope the ideas that I have presented here will at least spark some conversation. I think that many of the concerns I have raised are easy to rectify, but since I have not been intimately involved in shul politics consistently throughout my life, I could be completely mistaken. My most urgent point is that even if all of my ideas are rejected, the rejection should be done in a manner that is rational and respectful, instead of in a way that makes women feel guilty for ever having asked. It may be impractical to create spaces for women, but, if this is the case, then these women should be apologized to instead of being scolded for having the audacity to want to daven with a minyan. And it may be hard to maintain communication between the men’s and women’s sections during davening, but, at the very least, there can be an awareness that the experience on the opposite sides of the mehitsah can be very different. Hopefully, with a change in attitude and practice, women will no longer feel uncomfortable and unwelcome in the synagogue and will no longer feel alienated from such an important component of community life.

Davida Kollmar is a senior at SCW majoring in Physics, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.

[i] Artscroll’s translation.

[ii] Sukkah 51b.

[iii] See Rama, Orakh Hayyim 132:2. Rama says that the mourner’s kaddish is always said after Aleinu. If there is no mourner in the shul, then someone who does not have either parent still living should say it.  Alternatively, someone with both parents living may also say the kaddish as long as the parents do not mind.