It was a (very) wet Wednesday morning a couple of weeks ago when I attended a brit in a private home. Notwithstanding the weather and the early start, the house was filled with guests.
As male guests arrived they promptly strapped on tefillin, opened their prayer books and joined the morning service. Most of the female guests however, hovered in the hall chatting. With the exception of one, who had a siddur App on her iPhone, none had brought a siddur and none was provided for them. There was no expectation that they would actively engage in the service.
A week later, I attended another service. Again, it was a very early start, but this service found the female side of the mechitza bursting at the seams, with close to 100 women in attendance. All of the women were engrossed in prayer, raising their voices in answer to the leader at appropriate times throughout the service and quietly following the Torah reading.
Why such a stark difference? The women who attended both services represent the same population. In fact, I can think of a couple who attended both services. What would motivate them to behave in such a contradictory way?
The answer lies in our community's expectation of women. When no provisions are made for an adequate women's prayer space, for them to hear the service or have access to prayer books, the distinct message is that women's prayer is not expected, necessary or important. At the brit I attended - as at many evening services in shiva homes or at weddings - there was an implicit assumption that women would not participate in prayer. The Sunday morning service was a "partnership minyan" that anticipated women's active engagement in prayer.
How about examining the prayer space layout?
But is prayer for women important, or even necessary?
Traditionally, women were exempt from much of prayer so that they could focus on building and maintaining the Jewish home: a far more important institution than the synagogue. However, given that modern women do in fact successfully juggle family, career and communal involvement, can we relegate their Shabbat experience to cooking or their active synagogue participation to a place on the kiddush rota?
Increasing numbers of women leave services feeling at best uninspired and at worst marginalised. How successful will these dispirited women be at transmitting a positive Jewish vibe in their home?
The question is not whether Orthodox synagogues can afford to make changes to benefit women but, rather, can they afford not to?
Partnership minyanim are perhaps not the solution for the mainstream. But there are many ways in which communities can make space and invite women actively to participate in prayer.
How about re-examining the layout of the prayer space: are women behind, suspended above, or alongside the men? Can women hear the prayer leader or Torah reading? Does the person leading the service ascertain whether women as well as men have concluded the silent amidah before proceeding? Are mothers' names included when barmitzvah boys are called up to the Torah? Are mourning women encouraged to recite Kaddish? Are teenage girls invited to celebrate their love and commitment to Torah by kissing it when it is paraded on Shabbat or dancing with it on Simchat Torah?
For some Orthodox community leaders these are uncomfortable questions. Others may have simply never considered them. Either way they are being asked by increasing numbers of men and women who are not satisfied with the status quo. It is for responsible leaders, lay and rabbinic, to listen to what is being said and to work together to find constructive and inspiring solutions.