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Separate and Equal?

Think Tank

I’ve always considered myself a Jewish feminist. Always. So I don’t know why last summer’s discussion wasn’t easy for me. Should have been. Open and shut. Case closed. I wanted to be on the side of equality, but I wasn’t sure which side that was.

A progressive Jewish institution I love dearly, which has always been passionately committed to radical egalitarianism, has opened up a thorny question: Should the organization allow mechitzah (gender-separate and non-egalitarian) and single sex prayer services during its several-times yearly gatherings?

This organization was founded 25 years ago, when there were still extremely limited ritual roles for Jewish women. Until the Jewish feminist movement of the 1970s pressed for women’s full participation in prayer and ritual, women in Orthodox and Conservative settings in particular were excluded from much of public Jewish life. Ever since, this organization’s officially sponsored prayer options have ranged from traditional to feminist to experimental. But regardless of style, each and every one of these services has been egalitarian and open to anyone of any gender.

Now the topic has been re-opened and the old rule is under fire. Not for a vote, as the organization has been careful to point out, but simply for discussion, to see where the community stands on the issue. Why? Because of requests from a younger generation, Jews in their 20s and 30s, like me, who were not present when the original policy outlawing the separation of women and men at prayer was established.

The twenty- and thirty-somethings in favor of considering the option of gender-separate prayer make two arguments. First, they contend that non-egalitarian minyanim should be offered in the spirit of pluralism and in a bid to attract more traditional Jews who may be interested in the organization but uncomfortable praying in egalitarian settings. Second, they argue that prohibiting single-gender minyanim (and, more particularly, women’s minyanim) is in itself a form of the exclusivity that the organization had tried to prevent with its original policy. In the eyes of many younger Jews, the debate is less about the old struggle against patriarchy, but rather about women’s—and all Jews—rights to pray as they wish.

The greatest philosophical divide is between Jews of my generation and those of my parents’ generation (those in their 50s and older). The issue has brought to the fore some key differences between their varying views of feminism, with some younger Jews feeling secure enough in their equality to reimbrace traditional practices.

At last summer’s meeting, most of those who spoke in favor of allowing non-egalitarian and single-gender prayer services were much younger than those who opposed the idea.

I had wanted to stand up and speak. But I wasn’t sure what to say. As much as I wanted to cast my lot with all the folks in the room who helped found this organization that I care for so much, I couldn’t. To me, the issue was not just a matter of feminism and egalitarianism; it was a more complicated question. Among other things, it was a question of pluralism. Could we, a community that feels secure in its inclusivity and egalitarianism, open its arms to embrace those who don’t? Should we? Are we missing an opportunity to include liberal Modern Orthodox Jews and feminists? Or would the explicit approval of non-egalitarian Judaism be harmful to our institutional culture and our very nature as an organization dedicated to an all-encompassing egalitarianism?

My generation of non- Orthodox Jews seems to mix much more freely with Orthodox and traditional Jews than our parents did. We are, by and large, a group for whom traditional, though egalitarian, Jewish living is making a comeback. To exclude Orthodox Jews would be to exclude some of our friends, teachers, and acquaintances. But I couldn’t force myself to stand up and say any of this. I felt a tremendous amount of shame, as though I were betraying both my feminist principles and the pioneers in the room who had fought for my right to be counted.

I am confused, and I am upset that I am confused. A true feminist, I think, wouldn’t be confused.

A few weeks later, I attended with my mother a panel on the future of Jewish feminism. The panelists were heavy hitters: scholar Judith Plaskow, activist Letty Cottin Pogrebin, and Devorah Zlochower, my beloved Talmud teacher at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education.

Judith Plaskow opened the session. She was concerned about what she considered to be “backsliding” on feminist principles in the Jewish community. To my surprise, she cited the summer’s discussion on gender-separate prayer as a prominent sign of this backsliding.

I was shaken.

When the moderator called for questions, I asked Plaskow why she viewed the discussion so clearly as evidence of backsliding rather than as a more nuanced phenomenon. One of her answers was that she has observed the changes wrought in a liberal congregation that recently added a non-egalitarian prayer option. Younger girls who previously wore tallitot or participated in services were now taking off their tallitot and refusing leadership roles because it was “wrong.”

This worried me. This result was indeed backsliding, and it was a frightening, unacceptable outcome of an attempt to be inclusive.

After the session ended, my mother and I continued the conversation. It turned out that she, like Plaskow, saw the matter in a different light. Minyanim where women and men prayed separately were a step backward. Period.

To illustrate her point, she told a story. My mother graduated from middle school in 1961. With the highest GPA in her class, she was slated to be the valedictory speaker at graduation. Apparently, this honor had never before fallen to a girl. The school principal decided that making my mother valedictorian was a waste. There was no official recourse, nor did my grandmother choose to challenge the ruling. My mother cried all day, but to no avail. As my mother said, “It was 1961. Nobody really thought there was anything wrong with that. Everyone felt bad for me, but no one was jumping up and down about it.”

That same year, my mother was also supposed to receive a graduation award for the highest achievement in her cooking class. However, her (Jewish) cooking teacher decided that it would be bad for public relations if the sole Jewish girl in a predominantly Italian school won the award. Again my mother was informed that she would not be receiving the recognition she deserved.

This time, however, my grandmother decided that it was a matter of anti-Semitism, not mere sex discrimination. A formidable woman when provoked, my grandmother fought, and in the end my mother received the award. My mother notes dryly that “It was a hell of a year.”

My mother had learned that being discriminated against because one was Jewish was not acceptable. Being passed over because one was female, however, was perfectly acceptable. My mother concluded her story by noting that, “this is part of the fiber and fabric of what makes people feminists. We lived through experiences like this.”

So maybe that’s part of the answer to the different generational takes on the egalitarian question. Most of my generation, or at least the non-Orthodox members of my generation, haven’t lived through experiences like that. My 20- and 30- something friends came of age in an era of female valedictorians, co-ed Ivy League universities, and more accessible career paths for women. Similarly, many of us have never known a time when there wasn’t a synagogue somewhere, even if it wasn’t our own, where we felt comfortable and could read from the Torah, lead services, or be on the bimah.

To be fair, I am the product of a very specific time, place, and set of privileges. I am a white, middle-class. Ivy League graduate. I move in a community of highly-educated Jews who are committed to traditional-ish observance in modern-ish ways. Yet we are committed to an egalitarian understanding of Judaism and are painfully aware that gender (and other) bias is still present in all facets of our lives.

However, such bias has become more subtle since 1961, and in many ways all the more insidious for its subtlety. Unlike my mother, I can’t point to a single example of explicit discrimination in my own life. I’m sure that this accounts for some of the differences in the way Jewish feminists of different generations view the issue of non-egalitarian prayer To my mother’s generation, such prayer groups are a clear threat to hard-fought-and won gains for women’s equality. To many of my generation, they are just one configuration in an array of choices laid out before us. It’s not an option that most of us are likely to elect on a regular basis, but one we believe should be available to those who feel obligated to follow this form of prayer.

A large part of the younger generation’s attitude toward gender-separate prayer options has also been shaped by the current dynamic of Jewish life on college campuses. In many places, collegiate Jewish life has a very different feel than in previous generations. At a number of big universities, all flavors of Jewish groups are housed in a single building. Conservative, Havurah, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform and non-affiliated Jews gather together for learning, study breaks, and informal socializing. Friday nights at my university were a case in point. Though the different denominational groups prayed separately, we joined one another afterward for a rousing Shabbat dinner, where a different student (female or male) recited Kiddush each week. Thus there is a whole generation of young Jews who now have friends and acquaintances across the denominational spectrum.

I don’t have a clear answer to the conflicting views on this issue, but I do find the question—and the personal experiences that underlie its disparate answers—fascinating. Our positions on this feminist issue seem indelibly shaped by our personal histories and the era in which we came to consciousness.

Elizabeth A. Richman works for the Eleemosynary Group in New York City where she manages consulting projects for progressive nonprofit organizations. She is on the coordinating committee of the Park Slope minyan.