Sisterhood Blog

In Israel, Jewish and Feminist Selves Do Battle

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

This is the ninth entry in an ongoing series exploring Jewish feminism.

The first time I entered an Orthodox synagogue and saw a mehitza, or divider separating men and women in prayer, I was a little girl visiting my grandparents in Queens. Their home wasn’t religiously observant in the slightest, but my grandfather had grown up in an Orthodox family, and so the synagogue he attended — when he attended — was Orthodox.

I was only eight or nine years old when I first saw the mechitza but I clearly remembered being shocked at the sight of women relegated to the back of a house of worship, behind a partition. It was utterly alien to everything I knew a synagogue to be.

In the small WASP-y New England suburb where I lived until I left for college, the small Reform synagogue, known as “The Temple” with about 100 families, was the only game in town. Men and women sat together, some men with kippot, others without, as our young rabbi picked up his guitar before services and sang the tunes. Women were not only equal, they dominated synagogue life, some serving as president of the synagogues, making sure the Hebrew school and youth groups functioned smoothly.

For me, growing up, feminist Judaism was the norm. It was Judaism.

It was only as a college student on my junior year in Israel and later in graduate school in New York City that I was truly exposed to Orthodoxy. I learned much more in my first job as a Jewish journalist, covering the workings of the Jewish world for the JTA, and still more after I married a man from an Orthodox family in Jerusalem.

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