I was quoted in the Wall Street Journal today in an article about the mechitza (the physical barrier that separates men and women in an Orthodox synagogue. Like many other times when I’ve been interviewed for a newspaper article, I spoke with this reporter for well over an hour on about three separate occasions only to have a few words actually attributed to me. However, it is a well-written article about an interesting subject. Based on the article, one might think that I had something to do with the decision at Agudas Achim to not use a mechitza, but I arrived on the scene years after that decision was made and the shul decided to affiliate with the Conservative Movement.
As a little girl, I was both enamored of the women’s section at the back of my Orthodox synagogue and tormented by it. I lived for Saturday mornings, when my mother and I left our Brooklyn apartment and walked around the corner to sweet, friendly Young Magen David and the cozy partitioned area reserved for women only. It was its own world: intimate, charming, a place that encouraged friendship as well as prayer. Safe at last, I’d think, as I put the rough schoolweek behind me.
I’d take a seat next to my mother behind the wooden filigreed divider with clover-shaped holes. My immigrant congregation, made up of families who came from the Middle East, was so small that it was easy to follow the service from our area, and when the Torah scrolls were passed around you’d see women’s hands poking through the holes to touch the holy scrolls. Yet I also bristled at the divider and longed to escape to the men’s section. The men seemed to have such fun taking part in the sacraments and being counted as part of a “minyan,” or quorum of 10, necessary for the service.
The purpose of a divider — or “mehitzah,” as it is known in Hebrew — is to make sure that men aren’t distracted from their prayers. The custom of separate seating dates back to the Second Temple in Jerusalem, when congregants became so lighthearted at a Jewish festival that it was deemed necessary to segregate the sexes.
Fast-forward to 20th-century America, where the Reform and Conservative movements made a point of allowing families to sit together. The mehitzah all but vanished from their grand new temples sprouting in suburbia. With the rise of the women’s movement, the divider became almost a symbol of female oppression — antiquated and vaguely contemptible. Even some Orthodox shuls did without a formal partition, according to Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb of the Orthodox Union in New York.
They’ve made an odd and tortuous comeback, these dividers, fueled in part by a resurgence of Orthodox Judaism. Some other branches of Judaism, including ones that did much to try to include women, are hurting — while Orthodox Judaism is booming. “People in this crazy world are looking to be anchored…they are looking for greater discipline,” says Rabbi Marc Schneier, who runs the Hampton Synagogue in chic Westhampton Beach.
In the past few years, the Orthodox Union, which oversees hundreds of synagogues in America, formally decreed that any congregation calling itself Orthodox must have a formal divider. The OU’s decision has been convulsive in some places. Congregation Agudas Achim, in Columbus, Ohio, thought of itself as Orthodox, yet didn’t have a mehitzah. When confronted on the issue by the OU it engaged in a passionate debate, according to its rabbi, Jason Miller, and ultimately refused to put in a divider. It even switched to the Conservative movement. These days, says Rabbi Miller, the thriving Agudas Achim is “100% egalitarian.”
Beth Tfiloh in Baltimore went in the other direction. Years back, when it relocated to the suburbs from downtown, the congregation decided on separate seating but no partition. The concern was that a divider might alienate young families lured by synagogues where everyone sat together. But the tide has turned, says Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, and a new, more observant, generation would have left if it were not for the partition. At the same time, he adds, congregants “didn’t want to see women move to the back of the bus.” The solution? A “tasteful” mehitzah made of glass, wood and brass.
Rabbi Wohlberg is impatient with complainers. “Many of the people who say they want to sit with their husbands and wives at services, they don’t play golf together, they don’t have weeknights together,” he remarks. “All of a sudden, they can’t live without each other when they come to service?”
The OU’s partition policy calls for women to sit apart from men with a “tangible, physical separation.” But debate rages: Should it be six feet tall, or four? Should it be opaque, or allow for some transparency? Meeting the requirements of Jewish, or Halachic, law, isn’t as daunting as it seems, says Westhampton’s Rabbi Schneier. His mehitzah is so discreet as to barely be noticeable.
Rabbi Raphael Benchimol, of the Manhattan Sephardic Congregation, points out that the partition isn’t only important for men: “Women shouldn’t be distracted either.” Yet I learned early on that dividers did little to stop flirting between the sexes and have often wondered if separation didn’t encourage romance. I mean, what is more desirable than a forbidden object, the person you glimpse beyond a divider?
These days, with no little shul around the corner, and no mother to lead me there, I have the choice to go and pray anywhere. I can go to one of those vast and fashionable egalitarian temples; yet I choose to attend the same type of intimate service I did as a child. I am always on a quest for the ideal women’s section. I may have found it in my little shul, Chabad of Southampton Jewish Center, on Long Island. A few plastic potted plants make up the divider. It’s Halachic, but not intimidating.
When I come in the Rabbi waves hello. I put the rough workweek behind me and begin to pray.
Ms. Lagnado, a Journal reporter, is author of “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit,” a memoir, to be published in June by Ecco/HarperCollins.