The author (left) and her son at the Museum of Natural History in New York // Courtesy of Frieda Vizel
On Saturday, I was walking on Amsterdam Avenue in New York City, crossing over to the other side with my son Seth when a man with white stubble and a New Jersey accent stopped me and asked: “Do you want to be a tenth to minyan?”
I was shocked. I looked at him and asked: “Me?”
“Yes, why not?”
I was caught so off guard; I wore nothing that gave me away as Jewish. Just black leggings and a red shirt; boots. An ordinary outfit. I felt so integrated into the New York City weekend scene. But my eight-year-old son, who often chooses to be more religious than me, had his yarmulka on, so he gave me away.
I never thought anyone would ever ask me to be a part of a quorum for prayers. According to Jewish tradition, the presence of God descends to where there are ten men. Only in egalitarian synagogues women are also counted. I’ve watched men look for a tenth for minyan many times, because I grew up Hasidic and the men needed a minyan three times a day. When my grandfather was old and frail we held prayers in our house and finding ten men older than 13 who could make it was often a problem. We called the extended social network; cousins and neighbors and far away relatives who would make the effort for the sake of the grandfather; but I would never be called. I often helped get the men by running after younger brothers and knocking on neighbor’s doors to ask if someone could come be a tenth. After I got married at eighteen, I could help by sending my husband to be part of prayers when there was a need for minyan, but that was the only extent to which I could participate. Then I left the Hasidic community and began to explore small, tentative ways I can express my Jewish identity and be part of the Jewish community.
I stood there on this rainy Saturday and looked at the kindly Jewish man in astonishment. A part of me wanted to remind him that I was a woman and couldn’t be part of the minyan even if I wanted to, and a part of me was so deeply touched that this man valued me for religious services as much as he would a man.
As a rule, my husband and I don’t pray in non-egalitarian settings (or, at the very least, in ones that don’t count women in a minyan). So while I have been following the progress of partnership minyanim with respect and interest for a number of years, I hadn’t participated in one on a Shabbat morning until recently, when I attended the bar mitzvah of a friends’ son.
Partnership minyanim — Sisterhood contributor Elana Sztokman wrote a book on the subject last year — try to maximize women’s participation in an Orthodox service by extending women’s roles and pushing at the boundaries of a traditional Jewish legal framework. Women lead introductory parts of the service, have aliyot and read Torah, and there is a mechitza (physical barrier) between the men’s and women’s sections. At this, but not all, partnership minyanim, the mechitza is also on the bimah, with the open Torah passed back and forth during the reading. I enjoyed the way that women joyously sang along and without hesitation or muted voices — unusual at even the most modern of Orthodox congregations — but I found the mechitza to be a big distraction.
The traditional, Talmudic rationale behind a barrier is that seeing women during a service will lead men to have sexual thoughts that distract them from prayer — and that specifically these thoughts defile the worship space. As I find mixed seating normal and everyday, I have almost never been distracted from my prayers by being among men. The men I’ve spoken to who have grown up in egalitarian settings agree.
But the mechitza itself, now that was very distracting.
It’s nice to see influential men increasingly protest the absence of women presenting at major Jewish events.
In the publication eJewishPhilanthropy.com, Shaul Kelner writes a powerful essay about his pledge to refrain from participating in any all-male panel discussions, and to make his involvement conditional on the inclusion of women.
Kelner, an assistant professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University, was asked to take that pledge a couple of years ago by Rabbi Joanna Samuels, the director of strategic initiatives at the organization Advancing Women Professionals.
I was in Jerusalem twice last month — both times to pray at the Western Wall. The first was for the monthly Rosh Hodesh service of Women of the Wall, and the second was for a family bar mitzvah. Unfortunately, neither prayer services went smoothly.
I have been active in Women of the Wall for more than 15 years. I am on the board and had been praying at 7 a.m. each month, rain or shine, at the Kotel with this group of women. That is, until I moved with my family of eight this past summer to Kibbutz Hannaton in the Lower Galilee. It’s a religious Kibbutz, but it is religious in the same unacceptable-to-the-Israeli-religious-powers-that-be way as Women of the Wall and all non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.