This past Friday night (2/5/16) was an extraordinary evening for me. In case you missed it, last Friday was our monthly Family Shabbat, where we have a religious school class lead services, teens playing guitar, a slide show of our prayers, and I usually tell a story instead of delivering a sermon. Last week, I had an idea.
I decided to build a temporary mechitza in our sanctuary. A mechitza is a divider of some kind that separates men from women in the synagogue. In the Talmud it suggests that women should be separated from men as modeled by the Temple Courtyard (B. Sukkah 51b-52a), which had a women’s section called ezrat nashim, the same name given to women’s sections in Orthodox synagogues today. These dividers can take several forms, including but not limited to: a separate space, such as a balcony or different room; a raised wall, permanent or moveable, that divides the room in parts; a partition of any size that divides the room.
I constructed a mechitza in one of our two aisles, with men on the left and women on the right. The men’s section was also twice the size of the women’s. Before the service began, there were grumblings. Some people joked with me about it, some complained behind my back. It was uncomfortable, foreign, and against what we stand for as a Reform, egalitarian congregation. I learned later that one couple didn’t even want to enter the sanctuary. A relatively new congregant said to me after the service, “I thought we were going to have to go shul shopping again!” It was exactly the reaction for which I had hoped.
My intent was to talk about the new egalitarian space at the Kotel, and ask the service participants how it feels to be separated from those they would normally sit with in a worship service. What luck that our incredibly intelligent, vocal, and inquisitive 4th/5th grade class was leading the service with me. They asked incredible questions and made it so I barely had to ask anything.
Before Barechu, I began my teaching. I put up a slide of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount and asked if they knew what it was. (They did. CBT kids are awesome!) I showed pictures of famous people leaning against or touching the wall—Bibi Netanyahu, Morgan Freeman, President Obama, etc. I asked what they all had in common, and they identified very quickly that they are all male. I then showed them pictures of famous women at the Kotel, and they were all in the plaza—none were touching the wall.
I then showed a picture of the Kotel Plaza with its male and female sections, and asked what they thought about how it was separated compared to how we are separated. One 5th grader raised her hand and said, “Isn’t tonight supposed to be a Family Service? Shouldn’t we be able to sit with our FAMILY?!?”
That question was exactly the point. Separating those who would wish to worship together taints the beautiful feeling of Shabbat at CBT. She led us into a discussion of Rabbi Anat Hoffman and the fantastic progress they made last week at the wall, getting government approval for an egalitarian section at the Western Wall. We discussed how important it is for us to be able to worship next to whomever we choose, and how it is unfair for me to force them to sit away from their loved ones, when part of the purpose of Shabbat is to be with family.
The 4th and 5th graders were vocal and questioned a lot, and we agreed that we should “tear down the wall.” It is also important that we support Women of the Wall, and visit the egalitarian section when we go to Israel, both with CBT and on our own.
I am so blessed and proud to be a part of a community that takes egalitarianism so seriously. As a Reform Jew it gives me a great deal of comfort to know that whoever comes into our synagogue to worship with us will be welcomed with acceptance and peace, no matter where they choose to sit.