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Why Are Women Dropping Out of Synagogue Life?

Photo credit: Sharon Riddick Groppi

Photo credit: Sharon Riddick Groppi

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.