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Why Are Women Dropping Out of Synagogue Life?


Being alone

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.”

Aviva, who has been an “active shul-goer” for most of her life, stopped going to shul two years ago because, she said, “I didn’t want to sit behind the partition doing nothing. This has made it intolerable to be in a regular shul. I listen to men layn badly and give terrible divrei torah and I am increasingly burdened by the feeling that I am a second-class citizen in shul. I find it really off-putting to watch men and women who are equal in other parts of their lives, who would never [do] these things in the workplace.”

“It’s been male-centric, very male-dominated,” agrees Lani, who is often alone with her two young children on Shabbat while her doctor-husband does rounds. ”I’m just standing there as a spectator, twiddling my thumbs or chatting with friends.”

Some of the women I spoke to have had better shul experiences in the past. Susann Codish is a Jewish educator originally living in Israel for the past 10 years. In Detroit, she had belonged to a synagogue where the rabbi was “intellectually challenging. He was deeply, deeply convicted about halakha,” but also gave roles to women, including making Susann president and enabling her to give a sermon every week. “He didn’t say ‘I’m a feminist’, but he just listened to people’s angst and responded.” She has not found that attitude in any of the 12 shuls in her town. Most have no interest in gender inclusion, she says, so that in some cases the women’s section is on the balcony/kitchenette where the air conditioner drips and “men walk in and out to make themselves tea.” When she was saying kaddish for her father, for example, “one day, some guy from the shul said, ‘We don’t do that here’.” Susann thus went from praying twice a day, organizing services, wearing her prayer shawl, teaching girls to lead prayers, and having a spiritual home, to not having a shul at all. “It’s painful!” she told me.

In some Orthodox synagogues, the exclusion of women is built into the architecture. “In the town where I live,” said Ronit, “the women’s section is way up high. And it’s not comfortable. There are big curtains in the balcony, you’re basically praying to a curtain. I go there for Purim to hear the megilla. Otherwise, I only go to shul when I absolutely have to, and sometimes then it’s such a turnoff that I don’t show up.” Many Orthodox interviewees described a similar frustration. “I’m totally turned off,” Chava, a 44-year-old social worker from Ontario, said. “There’s nothing for women in shul.”

The gender of the liturgy also affects women. Lynn, a 35-year-old scientist and mother of two girls, who was brought up Orthodox, lost interest in Judaism in recent years because of the male-centricity of the prayers and practices. “None of it even speaks to me at all. It’s all written by men, for men, and the ritual is all for men. I don’t want to be part of any of it. I wouldn’t dream of stopping to keep kosher or keeping Shabbat. And yet the foundations seem really crumbly. Judaism should be by people and for people and it isn’t. It undermines the truth of it all. God gave it all to the men. God seems to be a man too.”

Leah agrees. ”I used to teach girls. And I used to say, just think for a minute, what if God were a woman? And it’s amazing how your perception changes.””

For many Orthodox women, these experiences peak around the holidays, especially Simchat Torah. “The worst part of a women’s synagogue experience is Simchat Torah,” Lani said frankly. “Maybe I liked being an onlooker, but I don’t like being forced to be an onlooker.” The customs around dancing with the Torah and reading from the Torah have become a focus of women’s angst. In many synagogues, women negotiate to hold their own services in order to perform these rituals. Whether or not a rabbi allows such a service – and where, whether on the grounds or in a private home – has become a major debate in Orthodox communities all around the world. And in some places, women are still fighting for the right just to be able to touch the Torah and hold it.

“Simchat Torah was the worst,” Chava told me. “We felt like spectators. So we organized an event at someone’s house, a pot-luck, and we would have this breakfast and learning.” One year, the rabbi chose one of the speakers. “She gave a talk about tzniut [modesty] how it means ‘hidden’, and how we should embrace being hidden like God. I was in shock. They hijacked our idea. They took the power and control away from us, and decided who would speak and what they would speak about.” This episode exacerbated Chava’s loneliness. “I’m looking around the room as she is speaking, I’m waiting for someone else to react the way I was, to think, what do you mean we have to be hidden? This is crazy. And it was a woman saying it to other women! And all these other women are nodding. And I was like, you are all internalizing all this bullshit.”


Public shaming of women

In some cases, women’s alienation comes from blatant misogyny. Jane, who is a talented singer and expert Torah reader, has been shamed by men while leading services. In one synagogue, whenever she led the service, a man stood next to the podium giving her instructions—how long to take, what to do with her hands, and drowning her out. In my interviews with men in partnership minyanim for my post-doctoral research and my book The Men’s Section, several men admitted that they do this on purpose because they do not trust that women know how to lead services correctly. Another time, Jane reported, while she passed the Torah around the sanctuary, she brought it to a group of women standing in the back. “I got yelled at for that. Almost in the same breath, these women approached me and said, ‘It meant so much to us that you brought the Torah to us because we are new here.’ I told the organizer about this, but he was unmoved. ‘No, no, this is our rule’.” Jane stopped going to this shul. “I just retreated. I gave up.”

Women are sometimes excluded at particularly harrowing moments. Nechama relates what she describes as one of her first turning points. “When my baby died years ago, that was the very first time I started to challenge that things weren’t right,” she said. “There was an assumption made that I—as the mother who just lost a baby—would not be going to the funeral. This was in Alaska and it was snowy and cold. Basically, my husband was the mourner, and I stood on the side. He walked through the mourners and everyone consoled him. He took off his shoes and walked through the snow. They didn’t even think I should be there. “

For some women, a constant commentary about how women dress contributes to the atmosphere of shaming. Ronit, who lives in a small town in Israel, described constant statements by the synagogue rabbi about girls’ attire, as well as “an email from someone in the shul upset about little girls coming into the men’s section, which was very pedophilic.” When Ronit objected to this email, she was disregarded. “I was told I was embarrassing the man, people told me to shush, and then others supported him. I felt angry and silenced.” Yet, this was just a taste of what to come. “I was the canary in the coal mine,” she said. “Our community is in upheaval about sexual abuse and who is supporting the abusers. What happens is that the victims are blamed, ostracized and defamed, and the community rushes to support the accused or even a proven predator.”


The impact of leaving

It is hard to know how many women feel alienated, and for how many women that alienation has led to dropping out. “Do I want to leave? For myself,  probably. But my kids?” Ronit asks. “It would major culture shock to move anywhere less religious.” Others have already left.

“There are lots of women who stopped going to shul,” Aviva claims, “but the problem is that we are silent. We are the silent drop-outs.”

What happens when women give up synagogue? For one thing, the Jewish community misses out. “Something has to change otherwise Judaism will lose lots of women to religion,” Leah said. “If my daughter ended up Reform, I would be happy, but I think women are just going to drop out of Judaism.”

Aviva says that it has been “very difficult. I don’t want to be without shul. It was more upsetting to go to shul than not to, but it’s a hole in my life, spiritually, religiously, and socially.“

The loss is also social. Hadar, 48, says:  “I miss sitting with people, catching up. You see people every week. Shul gives you a social connection, coming together as a community.”

“Shul is also news central,” Susann adds. “You hear things happening, like people who are sick or mourning or celebrating – I feel excluded from that too.” ”

For some women, like Nechama, there are losses and gains. She has left behind halakhic Judaism, but has begun the process of building a new community in the small town where she lives. She also found a community online where she “found that there are so many women like me. The community is growing. That is a positive thing. Maybe there’s hope.” 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.