Family & Education

What’s the view from the ladies’ gallery?

The recent shake-up in women's roles in shul hasn't been met with approval from all shul-going women, says Claire Cantor


There’s been a season of change in Orthodox Judaism for some time, led by women. Many have been pushing for more active participation in the synagogue, and this month Dina Brawer became a Rabba the female equivalent of an Orthodox rabbi.

But what about the women who are happy with the traditional role for women in Orthodox Judaism, do not feel the need for change and are contented and satisfied with the status quo? How do they view the march of progress and change?

Karen Wagner, 52, is a member of Finchley United synagogue, and has a traditional Orthodox, observant background. She is also a successful makeup artist and mother of three children.

Wagner believes the drive for change in her community is coming from the more observant, knowledgeable women who started the independent egalitarian partnership minyan in Finchley. The minyan is not connected to Kinloss shul.

“There’s a lot going on at Kinloss and the community tries to accommodate everyone… On Yom Tov [some women] sit downstairs in the main shul. It’s a compromise.

She feels no need to be part of the independent partnership service, or to leyn, or read from the megillah.

"Nor do I feel my Judaism will be anymore enhanced by dancing with the Torah at Simchat Torah. I feel that my role as a Jewish woman is to teach my children about the importance of family and tradition, and to help them grow into well-rounded, respectful people."

The sense of being an outsider may be felt more strongly by women on yom tov, especially Succot or Simchat Torah, when there’s plenty of action in the men’s section, circling with the lulav and etrog and dancing with the Torah.

Wagner doesn’t think this signifies inequality. “Actually I think, ‘thank goodness, I don’t have to get involved if I don’t want to.’ We have so many other things we have to do. I don’t need the pressure. I can say the blessings over the lulav and etrog upstairs and I’m happy.”

Is there something special about being with the women upstairs, a camaraderie, a sisterhood? Wagner attends a women’s tehillin, a psalm reading group, where members say prayers for the sick. She gets a lot out of it from being with the women, as much as from the prayer. But wouldn’t want to take it further. She worries how far the changes will go. “I understand there will be change and we have to move with the times, but there has to be room for everyone.”

Worrying how far to go is a concern for the modern Orthodox Rabbi. And despite the changes that are happening, some rabbis feel the gap is still there between equality and Orthodoxy. Rabbi David Mason of Muswell Hill United Synagogue is all for encouraging people to connect religiously and that includes women’s megillah readings, women’s services, batmitvah girls leyning in the women’s service, and empowering people who may otherwise have felt possibly “outside of things”. However he remains vigilant to protect the boundaries of halachah making it clear to his community that according to Orthodox halachah ten women praying together don’t count as a minyan, even though their prayer is of equal value to men’s.

“I think women are making sense of their Judaism by wanting to have a more active role in services. We are creating more opportunities for women to feel equal in their knowledge of prayer. It’s possible that the women’s gallery gives the message that women don’t have to know what they are doing or reading.

“Things have been changing and I believe they will continue to do so. The distance it goes depends on the constituents of the community. I do feel however that it may be hard to keep young people within the US unless there is ongoing change.”

Irene Mansfield, a lively 76, has beenan active member of Muswell Hill synagogue for the past 40 years, serving as a board member for most of that time, and was the first woman to be vice chair of a United Synagogue shul. She believes in progress, having worked in the field of human rights and in the Labour Party. She has read from the megillah and dances with the Torah on Simchat Torah. Yet the introduction of a mechitsa and seating area for women, downstairs with the men in Muswell Hill, was a step too far.

“The only time I have opposed a change was in connection with the downstairs mechitsa for women. It involved moving a whole block of men from their places in the shul. The method by which this was done was considered by many, including me, to be undemocratic. At most seven or eight women use the new area. I’m not against change as such, but I also don’t subscribe to Chairman Mao’s concept of continual revolution.’

Former Hasmonean Girls School pupil Katherine Bennett Brownstein, 32, is a member of Borehamwood Synagogue and often feels pressurised to join the partnership minyan. “My friends are always trying to convince me to join, but I feel women have enough to do without taking on the religious commitments of men as well. For me, the shul part of Judaism is just that, a part.

“I have a career, a business, children and I don’t need to reflect this in my Judaism by being a leader of the women who want change. My Jewish values come from my role as a woman, mother and wife. I don’t need to prove my Judaism through leyning. I am happy with the way I grew up.”

The split between those who want a more active role and those who are not keen has been noticed by Eva Chapper, 42, rebetzen at Borehamwood Synagogue. “Some are keen to dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah and many don’t feel the need. I have heard people saying, ‘I am happier doing the Kiddush than dancing with the sefer torah’.”

“It’s important to point out that some men also feel marginalised, even though they are in the thick of the action,” says Chapper . “Perhaps because they do not want to leyn, or may be less proficient Hebrew readers. This is not an issue reserved for women. We also have the problem of social media and the way people lead their lives. I think it will become more and more difficult to get people to sit through two or three hours of shul.”

And that’s why GP Emily Simon, 39, is one of the women pushing for change. Being in the ladies gallery, she says, makes her feel like a spectator in shul.

“I’m superfluous to the service. It feels most poignant when it’s a barmitzvah and the boy is being celebrated for entering Jewish manhood, welcomed into the fold by the men, he gets the message ‘This is your Torah’. While my daughter, as his sister or a batmitzvah girl, sits upstairs, silent, in a pretty dress, until after the service. What message is that?”

“Unless modern Orthodoxy reviews how this gender issue is dealt with they will lose people. In any other sphere of life it wouldn’t be acceptable. To keep women silent, upstairs. I am not saying that traditional Judaism is not valuable but I believe our norm is problematic.”


(This article has been edited post-publication to make it clear that the Finchley partnership minyan is not connected to Finchley United Synagogue) 


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