One Friday night in an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem 10 years ago, a woman was standing in the back of the sanctuary rocking her hips, soothing her fussy baby. A man walked up to her. She thought to herself, maybe he is coming to welcome me. Instead, he leaned into her and said, “If your baby is making noise, you need to leave the sanctuary.” She left – and never went back.
Exchanges like this have taken place in countless congregations around the world. It is one of the myriad of scenes in which women are made to feel unwelcome. The question is, how are women responding?
In researching this article, the women I spoke to all said that synagogue was once important to them, but that now they are without a congregation to call home. They live in Israel, North America and the UK and are between their twenties to their sixties. They are predominantly Orthodox, but not exclusively. They dropped out of synagogue for a variety of reasons, each of which presents its own biting critique of Jewish communal practices.
“The rabbi noticed I wasn’t there,” reports Aviva, a 40-year-old mother of three from the United Kingdom who stopped going to services two years ago. “He said, ‘We missed you’, but never actually asked the question about ‘why’. I was dying for him to ask. But he never did.”
Consider “Nadia” (name changed at her request, as are those of the other women I interviewed). ) On the Friday night that she led the Kabbalat Shabbat services in her “partnership minyan,” (an Orthodox service that separates the sexes but allows women to lead certain parts of the service). She made a one-word change to the song “Lecha Dodi.” Instead of using the word “ba’alah” (literally, “her owner”) to designate “husband,” she used the word “isha” (literally “her man), a word that is used in many feminist spaces in order to avoid the connotation that women are property. As a result of this change to the liturgy, one man in her shul was incensed. He started circulating around the men’s section in fury, trying to rile people up. Unsuccessful, he simply went to the podium and announced, “This woman does not represent the community. We are not Conservative.” Nobody reacted or told him to stop. Nobody said that it wasn’t his place or his role to speak on behalf of “The Community.” And not one person in the synagogue approached Nadia to apologize for her being humiliated this way. Nadia never returned to the congregation, and nobody seemed to care. The man who humiliated her stayed for many years, and was given many honors. Life went on without her.
These are not stories of cloistered Hassidic women breaking free with great drama. These are educated, modern women who quietly slip away from a communal life in which they feel unwelcome or unwanted. A mid-life rebellion may not even look like one. These quiet, private rebellions—which result from experiences around gender inequality, social isolation, or public shaming—have not evolved into a movement, but they reflect what might be a significant trend in communal life. Tinged with loneliness, frustration, sadness and liberation, their narratives offer a powerful about the tremors beneath the surface of deceptively happy Jewish communities.
One of the most common sources of alienation comes from women who are unattached. Jane, a 51-year-old single Orthodox professional who has been living in Jerusalem since 1991, has been without a shul for years. “I never really wanted to get married, and so I feel an unwritten social sanction to my life. There just never seemed to be a place for me,” she said. “As I got older it got worse. As a single without kids, it has made me more invisible. It makes me almost ashamed. Like, poor Jane, maybe she has no place to go. I don’t want to be pitied. I am independent, not a charity case.” Adina, a 30-something, formerly Modern Orthodox New Yorker also described synagogue as a place where people are “watching me or judging me.” Batya, a 56-year-old recently divorced artist living in Jerusalem, said that finding a community after divorce is “hard work. …People look at me as a middle-aged woman who should be inviting and not to be invited. It just feels a little lonely.”
If synagogue can be alienating for single women, not going to synagogue can exacerbate the loneliness. Lani, a 36-year-old mother of three who no longer goes to shul, thinks about her “female friends who are not married. It hurts me to see that as they get older, their social circles are diminished. How are they to keep their connection to Judaism and their voice within the community when they are not within the community?” She thinks of her mother, “who goes to shul alone without my father who hates Judaism, and I can see how painful and difficult and actually exhausting [it is] for her.”
Discovering the loneliness of being an unattached woman can also come as a shock. Batya, who divorced after 33 years of marriage, says that when her husband left her the community left her, too. “I’m supposed to say Shana Tova to people who did not help me at all?” she asks. Nobody, nobody there even thought to come to my side. This used to be the rabbi’s job. Not one rabbi helped me in any way. So there’s a lot of disillusionment there.”
“People just stop talking to you,” said Jennie, divorced. “Like they are afraid you are going to steal their husbands or something.”
In a culture which assumes that religious observance happens in families, women alone often struggle. Whereas men are often invited to complete a prayer quorum, women have no natural way to be invited in. “One year, the head of the synagogue I was attending said he would institute a new custom, where families would stand together under a tallit,” Jane said. “And I was furious, because I am not the only one who has no family.” The holidays are particularly difficult. “Around Passover, everyone is like, where are you for Seder, and I feel like there is a sign ‘loser’ on my forehead.”
Yael says that while the typical Jewish emphasis on family is in some ways “understandable,” even admirable, “there isn’t a lot of emphasis on bringing in people who aren’t part of a family. We fall through the cracks. Unless we have status in some other way, like writers or speakers or philanthropists. Unless you have some kind of redeeming feature to give you status, my experience is you’re invisible and out of luck.”
Gender in the sanctuary
If socializing after services can be alienating for some women, the experience in the sanctuary can be even worse – especially in Orthodox synagogues. Leah, an Orthodox teacher from London, said, “The men’s section is the shul. Women are like an appendage. I don’t feel connected at all. We’re so not part that it’s kind of irrelevant if you’re there or not. I don’t feel any need to go. If I had a function or a part to play in the service, maybe I would.” Shira, a 30-something attorney from London, said that the message to women is “Just go, stand behind the partition, be a second-class citizen, book lunch.”