Why I can no longer daven in an Orthodox synagogue
Is a woman allowed to be in the Knesset?’ Rabbi Shlomo Aviner asked provocatively. ‘Of course not’
Many years ago, when we were still living in the US, I had a Reform rabbi friend who said something I found shocking at the time. He declared defiantly that he would never daven (Yiddish for “pray”) in a synagogue with a mechitza – a divider separating men and women.
Back then, my wife, Jody, and I were members of a Modern Orthodox shul, and I just didn’t understand my friend. He wouldn’t go into such a synagogue even for a simha – a brit milah or a baby naming?
Then, a few weeks ago, we were invited to an Orthodox synagogue for a Shabbat hatan, where a groom is called up to the Torah on the week before or after his wedding.
That’s when I realized that I, too, felt awkward in synagogues where men and women can’t sit together.
This has been going on for a while. As I began to move away from observance over the last decade, eschewing the mechitza minyanim of my younger, frumer days felt more like an act of rebellion (“why can’t I sit with my wife and daughter?”) or perhaps a way of virtue signaling my new, non-Orthodox status, rather than some overarching anti-mechitza ideology.
CHARLES KING’S recently published book Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex and Gender in the 20th Century helped me understand that my discomfort might involve something deeper.
King, a professor at Georgetown
University, has written the fascinating story of German-born Jewish anthropologist Franz Boas and his social science colleagues, whose pioneering work in the early 20th century challenged – and eventually upended – long-held notions of gender, race and class.
Interviewed on the NPR program Fresh Air, King explained that, 100 years ago, most Westerners believed there were clear divisions between people based on their sex, color or social standing.
Race, for example, was considered “inheritable and biological,” King said, while “people came in natural gender categories [that] would be the same across all societies and for all time.”
As a result, everyone had their prescribed roles. Men, it was widely understood at the time, had a built-in genetic right to leadership – after all, they had been the hunter-gatherers, so of course they would also dominate in the modern world as CEOs, soldiers and synagogue heads.
Boas and his followers were among the first to break down such conceptions.
Anthropologist Ruth Benedict wrote in the 1930s, for example, about how among a number of plains tribal groups in the US, gender identities included an intersex category “where a person could have some of the outward biological features of one sex but occupy a social role that was on the opposite side.”
That was radical: It simply hadn’t occurred to people at the time “that the reality you were observing in the world was a product of circumstance, culture and history, not of something that was innate,” King said.
Feminist writers from Simone de Beauvoir to Andrea Dworkin expanded on the work of Boas and his associates. Today, the idea that gender and racial roles are not fixed by biology has become mainstream in liberal Western thought.
THE MESSAGE seems to have gotten stuck when it comes to Orthodox Judaism, however.
When I first spent time in Israeli yeshivot in the 1980s, I remember hearing the mantra that men and women are “separate but equal” and, as a result, women are not obligated to fulfill certain commandments, nor are they permitted to lead particular prayers or ceremonies, because they have “more holiness than men.”
I found that disingenuous at the time, but I looked the other way. An Orthodox lifestyle offered enough benefits for me to dissociate from the misogyny lurking at its core. Perhaps, I hoped, Orthodoxy’s attitude would go away over time.
Just this summer, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, one of the leading figures of the religious Zionist community’s hard-line wing, when asked whether Ayelet Shaked could head the block of right-wing parties, declared, “The complicated whirlwind of politics is not for women.” Is a woman allowed to be in the Knesset? he asked provocatively. “Of course not.”
Aviner is clearly mistaken: there are Orthodox women in Israel’s parliament. Moreover, the progressive side of Orthodoxy now ordains female rabbis, even if they’re not always called that.
But, to date, I’ve never seen an Orthodox synagogue with no separation of men and women whatsoever. The mechitza may be low, it may be sheer or even made of glass, but it’s still there.
And for me, that mechitza is like a high-voltage wire or a radio antenna, a visceral symbol broadcasting that congregants who accept its presence still subscribe to an outdated belief that different roles for men and women are immutable and eternal, whether that’s based on our hunter-gatherer DNA or God’s word as transmitted by Jewish law.
I’m not trying to be proscriptive here. As Shoshanna Keats-Jaskoll, founder of the Chochmat Nashim organization of religious women fighting extremism, told me, “I can respect the need for separate seating as a way to focus and not be distracted.” The problem, she says, is that what starts with the mechitza “becomes highly unequal, fast,” going far beyond the choreography of prayer.
A better approach – for me, at least? Mechitza-less, egalitarian synagogues. One that I particularly respect is Jerusalem’s Zion congregation. While it makes no pretense to being Orthodox, Zion’s slogan resonates deeply. It reads simply: “Come as you are.”
That’s a kind of Judaism ready for the next 100 years.
Totaled: The Billion-Dollar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World, is available on Amazon and other online booksellers. brianblum.com
If the Holocaust represents the darkest night in all of Jewish – if not human – history, as Elie Wiesel famously wrote, then the events of November 9-10, 1938 may very well be the very darkest night of the Shoah. In what would later come to be known as Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass – the pent-up barbarism and antisemitic mania of the German nation exploded in unparalleled fury and destruction.
On the pretense of the assassination of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by Herschel Grynspan, a Polish-German Jew whose parents had been brutalized, Nazi SA storm-troopers and Hitler Youth rampaged throughout Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland, destroying everything Jewish in their path. Some 1,500 synagogues and study halls were looted, desecrated and burned; more than 7,000 Jewish businesses were damaged or destroyed; hundreds of Jewish cemeteries and thousands of graves were defiled. 30,000 Jewish men were sent to the concentration camps of Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen, many never to return, and as many as 700 Jews were murdered on the spot.
The motivation for these atrocities was manifold. Of course, local antisemitism was not a new phenomenon in Germany; it had been raging and rising since Hitler took power in 1933. The Jews were demonized for a host of despicable “crimes,” including their allegedly having been responsible for Germany’s crushing defeat in World War I, and for causing hyper-inflation and the Great Depression. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 institutionalized Jew-hatred, making it socially acceptable, and primed the German public for the eventual purge of its Jews.
There was also a significant financial factor. The Nazi Party desperately needed a massive influx of funds to pay for the raw materials that supplied the voracious German war machine, soon to be unleashed on the world. Jewish money was an obvious source of income, and so a huge amount of Jewish goods and property were summarily confiscated. Indeed, Kristallnacht’s Jewish victims themselves were forced to pay one billion marks ($5.5 billion in today’s terms) for vom Rath’s murder.
Moreover, this was a way for the Nazis to accelerate their plan to make Germany completely Judenrein. In the 10 months following Kristallnacht, more than 115,000 Jews – almost half of the remaining Jewish population that had not yet fled Germany – emigrated from the Reich. Coming close on the heels of the Evian Conference – which had failed miserably in its attempt to find an international solution for the Jewish refugee problem – Kristallnacht was Hitler’s way of emphatically telling the world, “Whether you want them or not, the Jews will have no place in our country.”
I want to suggest another, no less appropriate name for Kristallnacht: “The Night of Shattered Illusions.” While Hitler’s genocidal designs upon world Jewry were certainly no secret – Mein Kampf had outlined them already in 1925 – this one event made it crystal-clear to the entire world that every Jewish life was now in mortal danger. No amount of wishful thinking or rationalization – such as British prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s infamous “Peace in our time” declaration, made just five weeks earlier – could deny or dismiss the outpouring of Nazi hatred. Foreign journalists witnessed and reported it; even The New York Times made it their lead story in bold headlines. And while some Germans did condemn the attacks, massive crowds of ordinary civilians enthusiastically participated in the riots and joined in the carnage against their neighbors.
Kristallnacht is widely considered to be the date the Holocaust began. From this moment on, the truth was painfully, undeniably clear for all to see. No Jew could be safe anywhere the Nazi tentacles reached. Unlike other tragic periods in our history, when our persecutors might be bought off with money or political influence, the Shoah was obsessively single-minded and virtually impenetrable; it meant to eradicate every last member of our faith, with no exceptions whatsoever – even including many who had no inkling that they had any Jewish blood at all.
If there is anything positive to be gleaned from the horrendous legacy of Kristallnacht – and all that was to follow – it is the imperative to take antisemitism seriously, for it is deadly serious. What begins as “benign prejudice” – slanderous words of hate and mere threats – can quickly morph into very real acts of violence. Society can rapidly fall victim to charismatic demagogues, adopting a mob mentality that defies both logic and cultural norms. For reasons that no one has yet definitively identified, Jews become the traditional target of choice for the ills of society, real or imagined. The rantings of an Erdogan, the Nazi-like imagery of Palestinian journalism, the rise of American white supremacy and left-wing BDS on campus are all threats not to be ignored or excused.
Glass, we know, is a medium that allows us to view events clearly. But that is only when we choose to open our eyes and grasp the reality that is staring us in the face.
The Nazi party desperately needed a massive influx of funds to pay for the German war machine... Jewish money was an obvious source of income
When Aluma Mekaitan Guertzenstein tells me she’s married and pregnant, I burst into tears of joy. I’ve been asked to update the stories of terrorism survivors, those I met in the years 2000 and 2005 when the horror of bus bombings, restaurant bombings and disco bombings aimed at young people was our daily reality in Israel. Thousands of Israelis were killed and maimed. Jerusalem, our real and symbolic capital, was the target of much of the terrorism. I’ve run into Aluma a few times over the years. Once she’d just gotten her driver’s license and was going to see which cars she could drive. I was glad she’d gone on with her life.
Who can forget November 21, 2002? Aluma got up early, her mind full of numbers. A 17-year-old schoolgirl, she was determined to score high on the morning’s math test, as she boarded Egged bus No. 20 in Kiryat Menahem, a working-class neighborhood of Jerusalem where her family lived. Aluma hugged close her heavy school backpack packed with books and notebooks. Others were waiting at her stop on Mexico Street.
Among them was Na’el Abu Hilail, 23. He’d been driven into Jerusalem from El-Khader, south of Bethlehem, to this bus, deliberately chosen because by 7:15 a.m. it was always crowded with children going to school and office workers going to their jobs downtown. In his backpack were no books, but 5 kilograms of explosives packed with shrapnel. Standing near the driver where passengers lined up to pay, he pulled the switch. The windows were blown out of the bus. The roof was ripped off. The blast wave rolled through the enclosed space, tearing the junctures where air and tissue meet: ear, lung and the gut. Metal fragments flew through the bus. Passengers were thrown from their seats. Fifty passengers were seriously and critically injured. Eleven persons, four of them kids on their way to school, were murdered.
At first the count of dead was 12. But then a paramedic named Raphael, like the angel of healing, made a last check through the bus and saw a schoolgirl’s eyelids flicker. Aluma.
She was unconscious. She was bleeding from more than 30 cuts from her right arm and leg. A dense and rusty square metal fragment, 14 millimeters on a side, had passed through her ear into her brain. But her school satchel seemingly protected her internal organs from blast wounds.
She was rushed to Hadassah-University Medical Center in Ein Kerem, minutes from the site of the bombing. In the first brain surgery, drainage tubes and a monitor were implanted to measure pressure. For five days she lay unconscious in the intensive care unit. Team members and family shouted her name. “Aluma, Aluma, Aluma,” but she didn’t answer.
Aluma doesn’t remember much. Most is a blur of images of people rushing and calling her name. She couldn’t summon her voice to respond.
“We didn’t know if Aluma was still in there,” said her mom, a now-retired math teacher. Her grandparents had been in Auschwitz; one grandfather had been killed in the War of Independence.
Only a month later, when her aunt brought in a laptop and asked her to write her name, did Aluma surprise and delight everyone by doing so. And when she was given a simple math problem, Aluma got the right answer.
Still, when the neurosurgeons told her parents that the brain damage was so severe, they weren’t sure they could succeed in repairing it, spirits sank. “It was worse than the day of the bombing,” Rachel Mekaitan said.
The projectile had crossed her brain midline and caused severe damage, hemorrhage and a traumatic embolism. They would need to close it off by threading a wire as thin as a baby’s hair into her brain to create a coil which would close off the aneurysm. They’d never done it.
Fortunately, a new immigrant neurosurgeon named Jose Cohen, skilled in endovascular procedures, had arrived from Argentina. Zionism.
The surgery worked. Later, the rusty metal shrapnel would be removed.
At last, she was transferred to rehabilitation in Hadassah-University Medical Center, on Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus.
After the surgery, Aluma began moving her left leg. Doctors and nurses cheered in the operating room. And over the next months, Aluma started regaining her speech, and her ability to walk.
That’s around the time a British MP by the name of Jenny Tonge came to visit. Tonge had said that if she had to live like a Palestinian she might consider becoming a suicide bomber. She repeated the comments on Sky News. And the next thing we knew, the BBC was bringing her to Israel, eager to introduce her to survivors of bus bombings and their families. The Mekaitans agreed.
While Aluma was having therapy, Rachel Mekaitan talked to Tonge. The MP asked her if she hated the Palestinians and Rachel shook her head no. But she was furious at their behavior and the waste, and what had happened to her beautiful daughter, but she didn’t hate.
That morning, in occupational therapy, Aluma was stringing beads on a wire, fighting to get back her concentration and coordination.
After meeting Rachel and Aluma, Tonge made a rare statement to the BBC that “suicide bombers were appalling and loathsome,” The former MK, now in the House of Lords, hadn’t become a friend of Israel, but the visit may have penetrated like a strand of a baby’s hair.
I feel like asking all our fellow diners, ‘Do you know who this is? In this cafe sits one of the bravest young women in the word’
ALUMA SPENT years of hard work in therapy, gaining back everything but the use of her right arm. She took that math test, and scored 100, then completed her matriculation exams and went on to finish three academic degrees, in education, art and visual communications.
She’d almost given up on finding the right life partner, when she got a message from a man named Mikael Guertzenstein who wanted to meet her.
She told him right off on the phone about her right arm. “I’m a new immigrant. That’s a handicap, too, so we’re even,” he said.
She was coming down with a cold. He promised to make her a soup. He’s a professional chef. Swiss.
The rest happened fast, and they were joyfully wed and are expecting a baby.
Over lunch in a busy mall in Modi’in where they live, Aluma tells me about baby carriages that can be opened and closed with one hand.
I feel like tapping all our fellow diners and waiters on the shoulder and asking, “Do you know who this is? In this café sits one of the bravest young women in the world.”
I want to be like Rabbi Levi of Berdichev, shouting to heaven, “Master of the universe, look down from heaven and see what a wonderful holy people are Israel.”
They don’t like people shouting in a café, so I’m telling you instead.
SEPARATE BUT equal? Mechitza of Chesed-El Synagogue, Singapore.