Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Thoughts about the Mechitza – a Religious and Cultural Entity

We have these friends, Ari and Stacy Goldberg who raised an amazing daughter Rina. Unfortunately Rina was a very sick child and yet her intelligence, both the intuitive reactions of a child and the wisdom of an old soul was beyond incredible. At her funeral this past winter (Rina was 15 when she died), Ari told the following story. When the Goldbergs moved to our community in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania some years ago, for a variety of reasons, they decided to call the Young Israel of Elkins Park their shul. They proceeded to explain to Rina that there would be separate seating of boys and girls and that she would sit with Ima while Abba would sit with the boys, as this was not the case in their previous dovenning (prayer) community. They then explained that there would be a divider, the Mechitza. Ari continued that they were unsure of how Rina would respond to this new phenomenon. After she saw it, she was exuberant and claimed that she liked the statement of “Girl Power!”

This story has stayed with me and added an important dimension as I have watched the continuing drama of the Mechitza unfold in our various Orthodox congregations. I want to specify that for the purposes of this discussion I am not discussing the Yeshiva or the Right (more Haredi type) part of Orthodox spectrum, but rather those of us in the Modern Orthodox world in its widest breadth.

Having grown up as a clearly observant Halachic Jew in the Conservative movement (yes, many communities like this existed pre 1975), I remember Conservative shuls that had separate seating options, the low and reasonable (meeting the standards of Halacha) Mechitzas in the Orthodox shuls in which I found myself and of course have very specific memories of the “Mechitza-in-the-round” of Lincoln Square Synagogue during my college years. My world was NOT the world of Ner Yisrael, Black Hats, and floor to ceiling separations between men who were active and women who were passive and barely present. Rather we were all observant of Halacha while interacting with each other as appropriate. This is my history; this is my context!

So, today I am somewhere between amused, confused, and just plain baffled regarding the increasing height and separation wielded by the Mechitzot that people build….. and I am NOT talking about the Yeshiva world! I once had the experience in a Community Jewish Day School where a few young men wanted to build a “bigger and better” Mechitza than the one that was there and as a result the Mechitza in this school now separates and divides more than the one at the local Orthodox Jewish High School in the same community.

People want the most and the biggest and the thickest Mechitza! People hate the Mechitza! People are confused about the Mechitza! Is this political, religious, historical, cultural or some combination of all of the above?

So, now I will continue with a story about a very different Mechitza. In Yerushalayim, the shul of choice for most of our family is Shira Hadasha. They have what we affectionately call “the moving Mechitza.” After so much thought and scholarly study and exploration and learning, this congregation makes the distinction between those things that we do because of obligation (chiyuv) and who has the obligation in certain aspects of the service such as Kaddish and other Devarim she B’Kedusha – thus requiring the needed Minyan of men, davening Shaharit, and so on. In such situations, one is halachically bound to make a distinction between those with the chiyuv (in this case, men) and those who do not have the same level of chiyuv (women). This makes sense in terms of the Mechitza.

True, there are many other explanations – women and men should not look at each other (definitely a problem those years ago at the Mechitza-in-the-round shul in New York), people will talk (don’t even get me started on the lack of success the Mechitza has on this score!) and so many others, some legitimate issues and others, well…. Let’s just say some of the explanations have as much to do with Halacha, I mean actual Halacha, as the decision made in one Israeli community for women to wear Burkas to practice the modesty that is part of our law!

So, in dovenning at Shira Hadasha, given that they push so many limits within the frame of Halacha in terms of what women can and will do in the public domain (i.e. participate in those part of the service dictated by minhag more than chiyuv, give Divrei Torah, make announcements – which by the way, one President of a Modern Orthodox shul recently told me was against Halacha, you can imagine my surprise on that one! --, and just be present and visible and valued as part of the Kehilah), I wonder sometimes about the moving Mechitzah, closed when chiyuv separates the group and open appropriately when it does not.

And then I finally got it, after 10 years of dovenning in this wonderful space. It’s Rina’s voice in my head saying “Girl Power!” Yes, we can come together as men and women, both separate and equal, respectfully and halachically. This was the original idea I grew up with when Modern Orthodox (just called Orthodox in those days, plain old Orthodox!) and Halachic Conservative Jews learned, prayed and lived together in shared Jewish spaces. Funny enough, I meet some of those people from my long ago past in Baltimore from time to time. Guess where… Yes, you guessed, at Shira Hadasha on Emek Refaim in Jerusalem!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Remembering AND NOT FORGETTING 9/11 in our Jewish community

I was absolutely stunned this weekend. Through personal experience and a few questions asked, three Orthodox shuls within a few miles of each other in my larger community made ABSOLUTELY NO MENTION of the Tenth Anniversary of 9/11. The Rabbis did not include any reference in their Divrei Torah nor was anything said in the announcements. It should be stated that in one other Orthodox shul in the area, I know mention was made. I am fairly certain this was not even a question in the non-Orthodox shuls in our larger community; it clearly was not in the communities I know about. My concern is that there are probably too many examples of other shuls (whatever the number, it is too many) in the first category and not the second in the larger Orthodox world.

I really do not understand this and would love for someone to explain this so I do not feel so badly. Here we are living in the United States of America, free to worship as we please, free to write, think, vote and do as we please and on September 11, 2001, our freedom and relative sense of well being were profoundly threatened by radicalists who will and do give their very lives in their attempts to take all of this away. Their influence is felt and threatening throughout the world and the catastrophic result of their coordinated efforts on this particular day (and it must be said this is not to the exclusion of too many others, to be sure) cannot be underestimated. Is everyone simply not as shocked, not as concerned and not as horrified as I and others I know are?

I have always been taught and have taught my children that as observant Jews, they also have responsibilities to this country and to the life it has allowed them to live. Our wonderful and amazing son, Brian, who is adopted from the Former Soviet Union, is acutely aware of this and voices his gratitude to this country as follows "You (that would be me, his mommy) and Abba adopted me and brought me here, but the United States has allowed me to have a life that I never would have had in Russia" or words to that general effect.

I feel strongly and know that so many others do as well that we as observant and conscientious Jews have an obligation to be just as careful about who we are as Americans and as human beings. On ALL THREE COUNTS, something incomprehensible and terrifyingly horrible happened during a bit over an hour on the previously beautiful sunny morning of September 11, 2001 - and that CHANGED our lives irrevocably. I do not believe I am being overly dramatic. I know people who died -- they were relatives of friends, former students of mine, friends of friends, parents of students and beyond that, they were Jews, Christians, Muslims, members of other religious communities, Americans and members of other nationalities, and most of all they were all members of the HUMAN FAMILY to which I belong. I still feel shivers when I think of what happened, when I drive by the site of the former Twin Towers, when I hear or see a reference to this event.

I remember exactly where I was and what happened when we heard about the Six Day War in 1967. I know people older than me feel the same about the Declaration of the State of Israel. Those of us who remember the death of President John F. Kennedy as the loss of our innocence are defined as a generation -- with a significantly different memory bank that those who are but a few years younger than us.

I know for a fact that September 11, 2001 is such a generation divider and as the years continue to go by, there will be a marked differentiation of the loss of innocence of those who do remember it and where they were and those who are too young to do so. If those who do not find this event significant enough to mark and remember need something to mourn, then how about this -- the loss of innocence, security and sense of well being of our own children and younger community members.

I do mourn the losses of so much and so many ten years ago on September 11, 2001 and I personally am disappointed in those community leaders who let the ball drop on this one. May we continue to remember those who we lost on that horrific day and May Their Memories Continue to be a Blessing for us all.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Three of our Children went on a Road Trip

I always say that I get to live with my five favorite people in the world (and of course, my amazing son-in-law and his and my daughter’s adorable twins have upped the number to nine in our happy group). Don’t get me wrong, there are many friends and people in my life whom I love ever so deeply, but our family … well it just ROCKS!

So Rachie (23), Talie (23) and Brian (15) went on a road trip. Ken and I packed them up, made sure the car was in great condition, made sure they had enough money, asked them for their itinerary, sent them off and advised them not to stay in motels (where they stayed only two nights of the entire time) where hourly rates were posted. They were in 16 of these 50 states, leaving Pennsylvania through Ohio then going through Tennessee and on to New Orleans, looping around through Georgia, Texas and then back up through Maryland. They came back trying on their new (fake but exuberant) southern accent and regaled us with their stories. They went to the Ohio State Fair for a return appearance (our family was there about 16 years ago and we purchased our hot tub there that we still have and enjoy – a rather hysterical story in and of itself!), saw a minor league baseball game in Memphis, Tennessee in what is reported to be the nicest minor league baseball park in the United States, saw and stayed with family and friends in Ohio, Tennessee, New Orleans, Houston and Austin, Texas, and Maryland along the way, spent Tisha B’Av in quiet prayer and contemplation on a Christian Kibbutz in Americus, Georgia (known for the birth of Habitat for Humanity and its worldwide network of such wonderful work), met interesting people, spent Shabbat in NOLA (New Orleans, Louisiana) – Rachie’s home from two years ago, ate well and in general really seemed to have a wonderful time. They even learned that MOST states do not charge tolls on their roads, something we who drive along the Northeast corridor would definitely appreciate. Maybe we have what to learn from our non-Northeastern states!

What is really amazing about all of this is that people are blown away that our 15 year old son and 23 year old twin daughters wanted to do this together and spend two weeks exclusively together – doing lots of driving during quality “in the car” time and just experiencing all of these new things together. I was actually going to go with them but decided it was more important for the sibs to have this as their own time! Once again, I find myself explaining to people how incredibly close we all are and how much we enjoy being together.

In fact, as I write this, our family – the members that are here, that is – are planning to go up to Cape Cod for a week of quiet and relaxation, if Hurricane Irene does not thwart our plans. Then we all plan to be in Israel together this coming December. We all speak to each other by phone, email, SKYPE, in person or any combination thereof daily. We now tell our daughter Yoella and her husband Jeremy, that our prayer for their own new family – with their two daughters, almost one year old – is that this pattern will continue.

I know fully well that the peace and calm and love in my family life are such huge blessings – we truly live Shalom Bayit every day. I let my husband and children know how much this means to me daily. This is a haven for all of us when we are finished work, school and dealing with the world. I know how blessed we are to have this gift and of course, each other. The real journey that we are all on together is the daily trajectory of our lives as individuals and knowing that we can come back to each other and find solace and joy in our love for and towards each other.

I really do have the family of my dreams! I thank G-d every day for this!