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I’m Not Orthodox, But I Attend an Orthdox Shul–Here’s Why

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As I sat behind the mechitza in synagogue last week, peering through its wooden latticework to catch a glimpse of my son playing at my husband’s feet, I couldn’t help but feel that I had crossed a great divide. I have always been a staunch defender of egalitarian Judaism, reluctant to attend any synagogue which assigned distinct gender roles in prayer or divided the male and female congregants in the sanctuary.

In the Conservative synagogue in which I grew up, men and women sat together and participated equally in the service. My father was the rabbi, which meant that my parents could not sit together even in this egalitarian prayer space, an irony my mother often lamented. While he stood on the bima leading the congregation in prayer, she sat beneath her wide-brimmed hat and plied us with bags of Cheerios and little boxes of raisins, always keeping one finger in the siddur (prayer book) to mark her place.

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When I left my parents’ home and went to college, I soon became a leader of a small but stalwart egalitarian prayer community which held services not just on Friday nights and Shabbat day, but also a couple of mornings a week. The nights before we met I would call our various constituents individually to find out whom we could count on and whom we should count out, since the full prayer service requires a quorum of 10. The Hillel building in which we prayed had transparent glass walls, and I often looked wistfully at the Orthodox minyan in the other room, which seemed to organize itself automatically. Our much smaller minyan, in contrast, would not happen unless we made it happen–unless every single one of us showed up as pledged, helped set up the chairs, and took a part in the service.

Eventually, several of my college friends did not feel it was worth the effort to sustain an egalitarian minyan, and instead elected to pray in the Orthodox community, where their absence would not be as noticeable nor their presence as vital. I tried to respect their decision, but to me it seemed like they were selling out. I believed that prayer should not be about gender, but that all men and women should stand equally before God.

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Although the sages of the Talmud excluded women from fixed prayer and other time-bound obligations, I did not identify with the Talmudic category of “women.” As an independent woman in charge of her own finances and not beholden to any man, and as a scholar of Torah, I identified far more with the men of the Talmud than with their wives or daughters. In our modern world where men and women were treated as equal in the courtroom, the voting booth, and the college campus, it seemed only fitting that men and women should also be equal in synagogue. And so I cast my lot with the few other like-minded Jews wherever I found myself–on the college campus, the Upper West Side of New York, and in Jerusalem, where I have since made my home.

And then I had children, and everything changed. At first it was impossible to pray in synagogue altogether. When my son was 4 days old and had not yet been initiated into the covenant or received his name, I insisted on carrying him in a sling to synagogue, determined that he should become a “shul baby.” I had not counted on how often I would need to leave to nurse him, and always at the most inopportune times–when I wanted to hear the Torah reading, or recite the prayer for the sick, or stand with my feet together in imitation of the angels for the silent prayer. Babies may look like angels, but they generally don’t allow their parents to stand angelically still. And so in subsequent weeks I instead prayed from home whenever the baby napped or my husband could take him off my hands.

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Now that we have three toddlers, it is important to us that our children grow accustomed to attending synagogue and learning the prayers and melodies. I want synagogue to be a strong Shabbat association, as it was for me. And so like my mother, I pack up the Cheerios and raisins and set out with my husband–who has already prayed elsewhere–and kids in tow. There is an egalitarian minyan that meets a few neighborhoods over, and before I had children I would always pray there. But now it is a far walk with the kids, and it’s not easily accessible with a stroller, and so we go there only rarely. More often we go to an Orthodox partnership minyan where men and women sit separately and there are parts of the service that only men can lead. It has a mechitza, true–but it also has a wide ramp leading up to the synagogue, a place for me to park my double stroller, and a children’s service in which my kids have learned to sing many of the Shabbat morning prayers.

I do not feel entirely comfortable in that minyan, even though it is committed to many of my most deeply-held progressive and feminist ideals. Though I love to read Torah, I will not leyn (chant Torah) there because on some level, I am not prepared to call it home. For the same reason, I have not become a member, though we gave a donation equivalent to the membership dues. Only rarely do I manage to make it into the main sanctuary, since I’m usually in the children’s service and then the playground. But there are times when I find myself sitting behind the mechitza, trying not to think about what my idealistic 20-year-old self would have thought if only she could see my now.

Have I, too, sold out? Part of what I always found so frustrating about the egalitarian minyanim I took part in both in college and beyond was that they rarely attracted young families. Most of our members were students and single people in their 20s. I am beginning to understand why. Even if we were in an egalitarian synagogue, it would be impossible for my husband and me to sit in synagogue at the same time, or for both of us to take on leadership roles. Someone would have to be primarily responsible for the kids.

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And so I have a newfound appreciation for the Talmudic sages’ exemption of women from time-bound commandments. There are some stages of life when it is simply impossible to pray regularly at fixed times. Being a parent of small children is one such stage. It need not necessarily be the woman who is exempt, but the reality is that at any given moment, it is generally only one parent who can be praying. And so the “woman”–a Talmudic category that I would define as whichever parent is in charge of childrearing at that moment–is granted an exemption that affirms the sanctity of his or her work. Handing Cheerios to a child or adjudicating a dispute between toddlers is just as important as praying; it too is a form of divine service, and so the one who engaged in that service is excused from prayer.

I remain committed to gender egalitarianism as an ideal, but I would like to think about how to translate that ideal in a reality more sensitive to the needs of young families. I hope that as soon as we are stroller-free, I’ll be back in the egalitarian minyan so my kids can hear me leyn more regularly. In the meantime, I chant the full text of the Shema to them every night–its frightening threats notwithstanding–so that one day it will be easier for them to associate the words with the trope.

On Shabbat mornings, when I sit with my kids in the children’s service, I imagine a time when my daughters as well as my son will lead the congregation in these prayers. And hopefully by the time they have kids of their own, they won’t have to choose a synagogue based on the ramp, but on the very same deep-seated commitments for which they are inspired to pray.

 

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