Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Mechitza-phobia

Hello, do you have mechitza-phobia?  It's a relatively new ailment, taking into account thousands of years of Jewish history.  Its name is derived from the Hebrew "mechitza," referring to the divider between men and women during a prayer service, and "phobia," from the Greek word meaning "fear." We can diagnose this phobia with the following checklist:

1. Cynicism or antipathy toward the divider
2. Inability to concentrate on the prayers due to wondering what your spouse/child/friend is doing on the other side
3. Frustration/resentment if failure to hear or see what's happening in the service takes place
4. Insignificance of the type of divider (front/back; side/side; balcony)

The mechitza derives from the set up of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem (ca. 957 BC) where a "women's courtyard and  balcony" were constructed so that women could join and see the spiritual events taking place there.  Hence the source for men and women not to mingle during holy events.  The original Temple did not even have a "divider" per se, as the construct was that a special balcony was accorded for the women - which still remains a popular architectural construction in Orthodox synagogues today.  Personally, I find this the most satisfying solution since I can see and hear everything with an aerial view.

Most people seem to appreciate most the side-to-side set up, but only if they can appropriately hear and see what is happening.  When I was a child, one of the synagogues we joined had a bullet-proof floor-to-ceiling mechitza.  After one Purim, when I could barely hear the megillah being read, I asked my mother if we could switch synagogues.  And she agreed!

While I am hardly a feminist (in the classical intent anyway), I feel comfortable in synagogues where I can see and hear.  While that might seem obvious, it's important to discuss why.  I am in synagogue for one reason: to  talk to God.  Whatever will enhance that experience, so long as it is within the confines of Jewish law, I would like to incorporate.  I am not there to spend time with my husband, nor to spend time with my children, nor to catch up with my friends.  I am there to talk to God.

I'm sure lots of you have moderate to strong opinions on the subject.  Let the discussion begin!

33 comments:

  1. I like the side-by-side arrangement, and I also prefer to be able to see and hear. Well, I don't need to see absolutely everything, but I do want to hear what's going on. The first time I went to Jerusalem, I visited a shul with a brick-wall mechitzah and the women in the back. It was like we were in a different room behind the men.

    That said, I've also attended some shuls with mechitzahs that were almost completely see-through, or very short so that people could easily talk over the top. I felt like those mechitzahs weren't conducive to privacy and led to disruptive conversations. So my favorite kind of mechitzah is something in between.

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  2. The shul I go to has a somewhat movable wooden mechitzah of the side to side variety that allows enough height that while sitting, one cannot see over it, and can concentrate on prayers, but when standing, there is a tinted glass panel that allows one to watch anything happening on the men's side (Aliyahs, bar mitzvah, etc). I think it's a perfect set-up. And then when the Rabbi makes his sermon, he stands at the divider and paces back and forth so both men and women see and hear his sermon.

    Thanks forms great post, Ruchie!!!

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  3. I'm much less bothered by a mechitza (assuming good lines of sight and hearing) than I am by the inability of women to actually lead the service, torah readings etc. "Berlin Wall" mechitzas (as my friend Shira Salamone calls them) are a logical extension of the fact that women aren't really needed for the service. They don't count towards the minyan (prayer quorum). They can't participate individually (in many shuls, they are even discouraged from praying/singing loudly). Halachically the purpose of the ground level mechitza is to symbolically put the women in a separate room. It shouldn't be surprising therefore that in a few Orthodox shuls the doors to the women section are locked a significant portion of the the time, and that it is common that there is no regular women's section in the chapel used for daily (as opposed to Shabbat) prayer.

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  4. Larry I hear your pain and feel for you and all the many other I have met over the years who can't appreciate this. I don't think that Ruchie wants her blog turned into a philosophical debate but I do want to let you know how it feels from someone who grew up inside the 'box.' While like Ruchie I am bothered by the times when a woman's interests and feelings are sometimes forgotten by the men who do at times seem to be 'in charge' or running the show, mechitzas, and woman not leading prayer services in front of men (they are aloud to make a minyan of their own) seem to me one of the more beautiful features of our way of life. It's something I cherish and feel many more people would if they only understood it.

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  5. I'm female and I can't stand going to shul, try to avoid it as much as possible. I can't see anything but the lady's skirt in front of me. Can't see when my husband gets an aliyah or my son gets Hagbah. So boring. If I want to talk to G-d, I can do that at home.

    The time I went to a non-Orthodox shul without a mechitzah, no one was talking or doing anything other than concentrating on the services. Much nice because then I could see what was going on and feel a part of it.

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  6. "the inability of women to actually lead the service, torah readings etc."

    Larry, I am unsure what you mean by "inability." I am able to run a rockin' service, more than most Jews my age, should I so desire. I don't. Do you mean that Orthodox synagogues don't "permit" it? Well, then, let the women who want to do all those things head over to their nearest egalitarian congregation. Why should an Orthodox synagogue, which is patterned after the Holy Temple itself, make changes after thousands of years? For that matter, most of the features of any synagogue derives from the Temple (the ner tamid, Ark, etc) - resentment at fidelity to that icon can hardly be denigrated.

    Regarding your next statement: "women aren't really needed for the service. They don't count towards the minyan (prayer quorum). They can't participate individually (in many shuls, they are even discouraged from praying/singing loudly)," yes, you are absolutely right. Synagogues, shockingly, were created for MEN. Because they need them. Because they are innately less spiritual, less likely to get together with other guys and be spiritual, and less likely to admit that they need God in their lives. That's why they're obligated (yes, OBLIGATED - those that take this seriously inconvenience themselves thrice daily no matter what) in minyan and women are not. It's a rectification, not a prize.

    Sure, women are invited along for the ride, but it's not their medicine.

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  7. I’m not mechitzaphobic. I’m*anti-mechitzah* and I think there’s a difference. I’m not AFRAID of them; I just don’t agree with them (, or the denial of women’s participation as service leaders). BUT, and this is a huge but, I’m an egalitarian Conservative Jew, and I’m quite HAPPY with that label. I have Jewish friends on other points of the Jewish spectrum that would be miserable in my shul. S’okay. I’m glad there are lots of communities we can all belong to (and hopefully one near you that you feel comfortable in).
    I went to Chabad with my boyfriend; other times, he comes to my Conservative with me. I love that in our relationship we can support each other in our very different expressions and manifestations of Judaism; I wouldn’t want it any other way.
    The Chabad mechitzah is probably 6 feet tall in total. It divides side-by-side seating for women (on left, facing the bimah) and men (on right, facing the bimah). The bottom 4.5 feet are made of wooden fence planks. The top 1.5 feet are made of lacey fabric that isn’t sheer but does allow you to see through if you try; it is hung between the fence posts on tension rods. The bimah is elevated such that even in the back row, in the far women’s corner, you can see people (from mid-torso up) if they’re on the far corner of the “men’s side” portion of the bimah.
    In a large Conservative shul on the East Coast, the sanctuary was built in the 1800s. The balcony was originally the women’s section and the floor level was the men’s. The room was a square, essentially, with the aron kodesh being one of the four sides, the other three being the women’s balcony. The bottom floor was split evenly between the bimah and the men’s seating. When this one expanded and built a second sanctuary, it built three sections of seating facing the bimah: a big center section separated from two smaller sections by aisles. The aisle served as a “contemporary” mechitzah, in addition the section of intermingled worshippers. This is clearly a modern Conservative approach to the issue that wouldn’t necessarily satisfy all of the Conservative members who wants a mechitzah, but given the nature of the community was probably the best solution. Some times you gotta compromise, and sometimes you realize it may be time to start shul shopping….

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  8. Mikvehbound, really you're right, but "mechitza-phobia" was too cute to pass up :)

    RNF: would love to hear you elaborate... I actually love when my blog becomes a philosophical debate, as long as its mutually respectful. Welcome to OOTOB.

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  9. Can't argue with you there Ruchi--it does have a nice ring to it.

    And I also encourage disagreement (and as sick as this may sound,) and love when it happens here. The environment has been nourished by you and your other readers such that we can disagree and not make it or take it personal. There are legitimate differences that I think are worth exploring; you might even change your mind(!) after hearing some things here. I know I have learned a lot from you all.

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  10. Two things
    1. I don't daven in a shul where I don't feel like I'm in the same building. B"H, in my community there are plenty of choices where you can see and hear what is going on.

    2. Before I was frum, I was mechizta-phobic. Then, I started helping out at our Conservative synagogue's Junior Congregation. After a few weeks, my husband said, "Don't take this the wrong way, but I'm getting a lot more out of services since you stopped sitting next to me." The lightbulb went off in my head. Now, the only reason it ever bothers me is if I need my DH to come out of services for some reason. I have to find someone in the hall or send a kid in to bring him out. But that's a minor annoyance, and he's more reachable on the other side of the mechitza than he is when he's on the train going to work...

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  11. Mikvahbound, that may just be the nicest feedback I've ever gotten on this blog.
    Thank you!

    Amy, interesting perspective!!

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  12. I'm reform-secular, but had a late-breaking desire to go to Kol Nidre services this year. Husband and kids were not interested/available, so I went by myself, and I had the BEST experience I ever had at a service because I was utterly by myself (mixed seating, it was reform). So I can understand the idea that it's actually better to not sit with a spouse--but in an orthodox shul probably most people have kids with them in any case. I know that shul is conceived as a family event but I now appreciate the idea that it is more an individual event.

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  13. I don't like it because most that I've seen send the message that women are "less than." It's not a message I want to pass on to my children, regardless of how subtle. It also really bothers me that the women's section of the kotel is so small compared to the men's. I've heard the explanations for that and I don't buy them.

    Thanks for posting about this topic and engaging in discussion about it though - I've honestly never spoken to a woman (that I know of) who approves of the mechitza.

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  14. I find the issue of mechitza's interesting. Growing up at a Conservative shul meant, to me (when I wasn't in youth programs or running them like I did for most of my adolescence) sitting next to my dad and my zaidy. Now that I go to an Orthodox shul I appreciate, the idea/philosophy/fact that praying on my side of the mechitza means I can concentrate on davening and not on anything else. It also probably helps that I believe socializing is for during kiddush and not during shul itself. I prefer mechitza's that are side-by-side because I feel more involved in the service and I can guarantee that I can hear the Rabbi or whomever is giving the d'var torah. I'm okay with being on a balcony where I can see and be part of the service but find that sometimes the Rabbi doesn't speak loud enough and it's a strain to hear him - especially because at whichever shul (there are two in are area that alternate) we go to on Shabbat morning the drasha inevitably becomes a topic of discussion over lunch.

    A story about mechitza's: At one shul the mechitza was where women sit behind the men, but it had tinted glass that you could see through. There was a young man who kept turning around to 'fix' his tie. It was obvious to all the ladies that this gentleman was checking out the ladies, his tie was fine. I have also been to a shul where there is a side-by-side mechitza that has a one way mirror - the women can see over to the men's side (and fix their hair/hats/etc) but the men cannot see over to the women's side. That was a great mechitza!

    Well back Ruchi from Israel. Hope you had a wonderful trip!

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  15. Love the comments here.

    I attended a shul where the women were situated behind the men, with a one-way mirror mechitza (like what Hilary was describing). I found that I was constantly looking at the men, watching who was davening well, who wasn't paying attention, etc. It was especially hard for me to concentrate when I was dating my husband. Of *course* I was checking out how he was davening (it's a good thing the mirror was only one way...).

    After we were married, we joined a shul which has a wall for a mechitza. No, it was really a wall, one of those moveable divider things. I had heard people complain about it, so I braced myself for an unpleasant davening experience. Much to my surprise, I actually really like it. I could hear what part of the service we were up to, and that was really enough for me. I davened with a lot more concentration. Who knew?

    In general, though, I think the middle-of-the-road mechitzas work best. Not too short, not too tall, not too thick, you know. A Goldilocks mechitza.

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  16. I think some of it is just what you're used to. If you've grown up with the mechitza and gender-segregated seating, you probably will find yourself peering around at the guys (or girls) around you if you switch and go to a gender-integrated synagogue, if only because it probably will feel weird, suddenly having a bunch of testosterone (or estrogen) around in services. Likewise, if you've grown up without the mechitza, and your first experience with one is in a tiny womens' section with something akin to the Berlin Wall sealing it off from anything going on on the other side, you probably won't be terribly impressed, regardless of whatever explanations you receive for why things are the way they are, et cetera.

    Myself, I've davened in places with and without a mechitza. I prefer those without, in part because, like Mikvah Bound, I'm an egalitarian, Conservative Jew, and that's just how I roll (less because of the mechitza than because the presence of a mechitza, as Larry mentioned, translates into women being barred from leining, leading services, et cetera), and because I've experienced way more Berlin Wall style mechitzas than the much more palatable alternatives discussed by Hilary and others. The worst was a womens' section that was so crowded it was really a fire hazard- it was so bad that I actually wanted to leave, but by that time I was crammed into a corner by the mechitza and couldn't get out. Not good times. I can honestly say that I don't find myself distracted during services by the fact that there are guys around, but I'm not married, so I'm going on my own, anyway.

    I've also found that life on the womens' side of the mechitza is typically either a coffee klatch with very little actual davening going on amongst all of the catching up people are doing about kids, spouses or whatever, really subdued or empty, because there's maybe two other people there besides me. I'm aware that this could very well be the result of me attending the wrong synagogues, but it really doesn't fit my style, either. Maybe we're just weird, but at my (Conservative) shul back in the States, there really isn't much (any) talking or side conversations or any of that. It's hugely distracting when I encounter it elsewhere, and I think some of it is a factor of being stuck behind a wall and feeling like there's no real reason to be there, anyway, since it's not like it's actually important for you to be. Which is cool, but in that case, maybe take the conversation outside or something? I guess I usually feel like things are kind of listless on the womens' side, unless people are talking about stuff totally unrelated to the service. That said, I know that there are some shuls with a mechitza where the folks on the womens' side have a rockin' good time. I was hoping to get a chance to go to one when I was in Australia recently, but it didn't pan out- maybe next time.

    I don't object to the mechitza per se, so much as what it tends to mean in terms of the davening experience. For instance, I know of partnership and/or Conservadox, egalitarian minyanim that have a mechitza but also have two service leaders (a man and a woman) or switch off with who leads the service, and I would have no issue trying one of those out. Likewise, I'm prepared to concede that my mind might change if I went to a synagogue where it seemed like something was actually going on on the women's side and people were actually into the service. Clearly, I need to move somewhere with a larger variety of shuls. If nothing else, it leaves me glad that there's a wide variety of options in terms of the davening experience, so that people have room to shop around, try out new stuff and see what works best for them.

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  17. I have been to shuls with amazing davening on both sides and a great mechitzas and I have been to shuls with awful davening and/or mechitzas on the women's side. I don't mind a mechitza at all - it's just not my preferred set up. I like my Reform synagogue and the warmth of the tefillah, sitting with my kids etc. I think perhaps one of the reasons the mechitza doesn't bother me is because my husband is a rabbi, and I almost never get to sit with him anyway :-) I prefer an egalitarian service. I am also really comfortable and secure in my beliefs and practices, and I really don't take offense at the Orthodox set-up, or Conservative or what have you. If I find a place offensive, I just leave. I have plenty of options. LOVE this discussion SO interesting!

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  18. Boy oh boy, what a loaded topic! I've got lots to say but maybe I'll just keep it brief and write about this on my blog one day...

    I never appreciated the mechitza until I first went to shul with my husband. Suddenly someone next to me (not naming any names, hubby) was nudging me, winking at me, etc and I just couldn't daven. At all. So I need a mechitza not necessarily to separate me from all men, but to separate me from my man.

    We currently daven in an egalitarian shul with orthodox nusach, but with three kids under four I've accepted that I won't be davening much in shul anytime soon. When I do get the opportunity, I usually sit somewhere other than with my husband.

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  19. Sbw interesting. I think it IS supposed to be "communal" (hence the minyan) but not "familial" (though many families perceive it that way - the family that prays together etc).

    Becca thanks for your thoughts. I can't tell you how much I appreciate all of you joining and creating such interesting discourse. And now you have indeed "met" at least one such woman :)

    Thanks hilary! Maybe on his side it was a mirror? ;) In any case, yes - kiddush is for socializing - no doubt that women can distract each other from praying too! No one should be socializing during services, and THAT'S gender- neutral. Also very hard!

    Rivky, a Goldilocks mechitza!! Love that!

    Diplogeek (what's that mean?) Yand Leah - you know what I love about your comments? You don't denigrate what others do. You have your preferences, you're secure in who you are, you're open to dialogue, and you're open-minded. I find that extremely cool. Of and what kind of rockin good time exactly? Interesting. In the shuls I frequent, the women are talking to
    God.

    Scj, lol!!! Sweet and funny!

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  20. I just realized that sounded rather sanctimonious ("in the shuls I frequent the women are talking to God"). This is not because all Orthodox shuls are perfect (as evidenced above) but because I find it extremely difficult to attend such shuls. In shul-shopping, "no talking" is high on the list. I'm not perfect either. I'll quickly greet a friend, but will try not to engage in dialogue. If a friend engages me in dialogue, I try not to participate without seeming like a self-righteous snob. For the most part, the women in my shul who want to shmooze do so outside in the lobby.

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  21. Ruchi- I got what you meant. And when I said "a rockin' good time," I didn't mean in the sense of, I don't know, crowd surfing or something, just that the womens' side (from what I was told) has tons of good niggunim going, everyone is really into the service and actually joyous about the fact that it's Shabbos and they're at shul praying. That is not, unfortunately, always the case, at least at the places I've been (though I'm inclined to chalk at least some of that up to the fact that it's not uncommon for the womens' side to be almost empty a lot of the time).

    And I guess I try to be open to what other people want to do because I'm aware that there are people who disapprove of egalitarian services, or wouldn't like the way I daven, or whatever. Religion in general, and Judaism in particular, isn't a one size fits all kind of thing, so to me, it wouldn't make sense for every single congregation everywhere to be marching lockstep to one particular way of doing things. There are also times when I'm the one looking at something from the more observant perspective and a synagogue I've attended is on the less observant side (to pick a random example, one of my big pet peeves is musical instruments in services). So it cuts both ways. And from a purely pragmatic perspective, my community wouldn't suddenly stop letting women on the bimah, for instance, because someone in some other community doesn't like it, so why would I expect that some other community would suddenly let women on the bimah because I think they should? Things just don't work that way. We can either live with that and focus on what we have in common or we can be cranky and sanctimonious about divergent views on women and time-bound mitzvot, or whose hechshers we accept, or whatever. To me, the latter seems like a waste of time and energy and a breeding ground for sinas chinam, which probably isn't what any of us needs.

    Re: Diplogeek, I'm a diplomat, and I'm also a (huge) geek. Ergo, a diplogeek.

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  22. Whoa! I've been busy but I see I've missed a lot. Ruchi, If anyone is still reading this I'll be happy to do as you have asked. I was alluding to my belief as to the source of the feelings Larry and some of the others here were describing. I'll try to explain.
    While you described your own issues with a mechitza, those were only feelings about what makes you most comfortable within the parameters of Halacha. Obviously that's as far as this issue would concern you (or me) because we both see a Mechitza only as a small piece to a huge picture that we have spent all our lifes studying. A picture in which the Torah and the rabinical rulings on it are binding. Within that broader picture, the mechitza is not only binding but it's purpose and effect are obvious and beautiful. Also, within that picture it is obvious that woman are respected and treated with dignity in the ways of the Torah, probably more so then in any other culture. This would make it impossible for the more 'severe' phobia described by Larry to befall either of us. It's like taking one piece of a puzzle and proclaiming the whole painting ugly because you have no clue what it is a part of.

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  23. Diplogeek, that was very well said. It would be so lovely if there were more like you out there! Or at least, more in the blogosphere!

    RNF: I gotcha and completely agree - exactly!! Btw I was searching for your blog and couldn't find a current one - do you have one?

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  24. This would make it impossible for the more 'severe' phobia described by Larry to befall either of us.

    I'm not sure what exactly you are alluding to here. It is certainly possible for you to encounter an O shul that will not make accommodations for you to daven with them on a weekday.With travel, you could reach one that wouldn't let you in on Friday night, or even on Shabbat morning with a few exceptions (Shabbat Zachor in particular.).

    If instead you were referring to my friends' disliking for 'Berlin Wall' mechtizas you are most likely correct, although I will cite the statement that 'Yochanan Kohen Gadol was 80 years old when he became a Sadducee.'

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  25. One of us isn't getting what the other is trying to explain. I thought I was being clear this time and not allusive. I was trying to make a differentiation between the phobia of certain types of mechitzas within the parameters of halacha, and the more general feeling you described:
    'I'm much less bothered by a mechitza (assuming good lines of sight and hearing) than I am by the inability of women to actually lead the service, torah readings etc'
    Since the concept that woman should be doing these things is contrary to the very basic fundamentals of Orthodox Judaism, you can only be bothered by them if you don't have a good picture of what those fundamentals are in the first place or the beauty behind them. Like Ruchi, I don't feel any desire or need to these things because I don't see them as part of a woman's spiritual growth/ obligation or purpose in anyway. I like attention, but I seek it out elsewhere.

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  26. Larry, I don't really relate to the shuls not accommodating women. My husband has been around in the Brisk/Telshe world and I asked him this question. He said at least 90% of Orthodox shuls will make accommodations for the stray woman who shows up for a weekday mincha or something. Even in my own experience, when I've to say Gomel after a baby or something, it wasn't even a glimmer of an issue. COULD you find ANY shuls that wouldn't? Probably. What does that prove?

    Re the Sadducee thing, not sure what you mean.

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  27. Larry I also wasn't sure what you meant about the Saducee thing. If you mean that I should not believe I can never do wrong you are absolutely correct. The knowledge and upbringing I recieved do not replace free will. We were having a philisophical discussion about understanding the purpose of a Mechitza, which I do and will never be able to honestly claim otherwise. It would definately be possible for me to convince myself otherwise, or chose otherwise. Therefore what?

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  28. Yeah the Yochanan Kohen Gadol comment was probably too snarky to include. And yes, it did mean that however firm your opinions are today, tomorrow may surprise you.

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  29. I'm waiting to get replies from several female friends before answering the comment about how hard it is for a woman to find a place to daven during the week.

    For now suffice it to say my female friends' experiences as reported to me are different than your husband's expectations. Is it possible that rare incidents are over reported due to their rarity? Of course, which is why I'm trying to get a more detailed response.

    BTW, if even 10% of synagogues will not accommodate a woman wishing to daven on a weekday, isn't that a problem worthy of some public (or rabbinic) attention?

    The book Women, Jewish Law and Modernity: New Opportunities in a Post-Feminist Age also mentions this difficulty as something commonly encountered. (Commonly NOT meaning anywhere near half the time).

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  30. Larry, there are a lot of shuls which woman don't usually daven in. I don't think that means that if the woman wanted to they wouldn't work things out. A lot of it is simply financial or space restraints. As we've both tried explaining, it is simply not important for woman to go to shul. That doesn't in any way translate to mean that woman are not important.
    As far as your 10% - if you are going to judge Judaism by the Jews, forget it, it's not very impressive. Unfortunately, in some ways, not even the Orthodox ones. I don't mean the good people who fair g-d and practice Orthodox Judaism. I mean the many different types of people who freely use the title to describe themselves. They come in many different costumes. They may even cross the street if they think they saw a woman. They may have peyos down to their toes. For that matter, they may have no yarmulka and ripped jeans. Which one is a better Jew? Only G-d knows the whole story. There is so much involved. Should a Rabbi speak to them? sure if he thinks he'll get through. Should Ruchi speak to them? Well if she wants to I guess it's a free country. I'm not sure why their existence has anything to do with whether or not Mechitzas are or are not necessary.

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  31. I used to have a severe case of Mechitza Phobia. Now that I have learned a tiny bit about Judiasm, I am totally comfortable with it. In fact, I am relieved by it. Because I for one am in synagogue for one reason and one reason only: to talk to my friends. Sorry Ruch! G-d for me is everywhere and I need no special time or invitation to talk with her.

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  32. Lol Wendy!!! That was truly funny!! Glad I know you IRL so I totally get what you mean. Good thing you are a woman so that sort of relationship with God totally works (btw if God is a her, she too is on your side of the mechitza...sorry couldn't resist!)

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