Monday, November 29, 2010

The Women’s Section

[This week’s Haveil Havalim is here]

One of the classic design challenges for Orthodox synagogues is the matter of the Women’s Section – how to create a space which welcomes and encourages davening, while excluding some of the key components of the shul’s real estate (shulchan, aron) and dealing with the reality that the great majority of Orthodox attendees are men.

Mechitzah design is its own complex issue, of course, but trying to design a good davening area for women by focussing on the mechitzah would be like trying to design a hockey rink by focussing on the placement of the red and blue lines. The lines are important, but it’s the ice that really matters, folks - and in the decades since balconies ceased to the norm, the ice has often been ignored.

I’ve been troubled by this challenge for decades. I once interviewed at a shul which was in the midst of an expansion, and at the grilling I was asked if I had any thoughts on the design they had chosen. I told them I felt their planned layout, which had the women’s section at the back of the shul, should be changed to put the women side-by-side with the men. (I received a standing ovation, I kid you not, but I decided not to continue in the interview process for other reasons.)

Having a choice of shuls and minyanim here in Toronto has heightened my sensitivity to the issue, and to the possibilities – positive and negative.

Of course, you may not particularly want women to come daven in your shul. You may feel that inviting women to shul is inappropriate, since it might lead them to want to lead davening next. If so, this post is not for you. But if you feel that our wives should feel like shul is theirs as well, and if you feel that our daughters need encouragement in their davening, then please consider the following ten suggestions for those designing sanctuaries today:

1. Make it permanent. Aside from the halachic problems with converting a space from men’s use to women’s use and back again [see Minchas Yitzchak 7:8 and Tzitz Eliezer 9:11 and 12:14 for starters], nothing is as discouraging as showing up in shul only to have people create ad hoc space just for you. )This is often an issue in daily-minyan rooms.)

2. Don’t let it become a coatroom, or a shortcut, or an ad hoc spillover section/talking section for men. It’s up to the rabbi and gabbaim to enforce this, but proper layout can help.

3. Keep the section well-lit. If a bulb goes out, don’t let it ride, saying, “We don’t have too many women who come here to daven, anyway.”

4. Similar to #3, make sure the climate control system works well on their side. In particular, check that the women aren’t directly beneath vents; that tends to happen in shuls where the women’s sections line the sides of the shul.

5. Make sure they have siddur and chumash shelves in their area so that they won’t need to ask the men to send them sefarim. And make sure the men’s siddur and chumash shelves are not in the women’s area, as well.

6. Put the women’s area near the front, for reasons of both acoustics and overall feel. Of course, this may necessitate a higher mechitzah, depending on certain halachic issues, but my sense is that a few more inches and placement up-front is preferred over a shorter divider and seating in the back.

7. Design the acoustics to ensure that the davening, Torah reading and haftorah are fully audible in the women’s section.

8. If your shul has a noisy hallway, make sure women have a choice of seating further from the door. Some may want to be near the door to have access to their children or to a quick exit, but not everyone wants to pray to the sweet sounds of squabbling children and the kiddush club.

9. Share the furniture. If your men’s section has comfortable chairs, tables and shtenders, so does your women’s section.

10. Make sure it’s populated. It’s a big turnoff for my daughters, and very uncomfortable for them, if they are the only women present in shul.

Women: Am I off-base here? What would you change, and what would you add to this list?


  1. Very well said - especially the acoustics issue.

    Only thing I would add:
    Space. A key to populating the ezrat nashim is having enough seats. Building a tiny ezrat nashim, because "none of the women show up anyway" [sic], is a self-fulfilling prophecy...

  2. The shul I like best has both a balcony and a 'ground level' women's section. Some women prefer the balcony because they have a better view. The mechitza needs to be allow for the women downstairs to hear well. A big help is if the shulchan is on a raised bima so that you we can hear the Torah reading well (and see who got the mazal tov). This should also apply to the amud although that may be more difficult. (In our shul the chazan is now on the bima because the men in the back of the extension can't hear well when he is up front.)

  3. In our shul the problem is a weekday versus Shabbos one. Women don't generally attend minyan during the week. However, on Shabbos and yom tov the ezrat noshim is full to the brim. Add in a Shabbos simcha such as a bar mitzvah or aufruf and it's overflowing.

    I think one problem is looking at all that empty space during the week. Those who arrange the space figure they will just make the ezrat noshim very small since it won't be needed. They are then "in shock" when Shabbos comes. The shul before the one we attend now changed the men's section to make it more spacious and put in tables rather than just seats. To do this they made the ezrat noshim a cramped space that barely holds 2 rows of 10 chairs to a row. Basically this was telling the women not to come to shul ever, and not to bring their kids either. Most of those davening there left the shul because wives were not happy. They had to find a different shul from their husbands to daven in. Why should families be split up?

    And just why have we gone away from the balcony idea? Shuls are already built with soaring ceilings so adding in a balcony should not be a problem, if someone would think ahead. Especially in communities with an eruv you are going to have women in shul on Shabbos. Instead of fruitlessly wondering why, accept that fact and plan accordingly and in a mentschliche fashion.

  4. Yup. I checked my calendar and it is 2010. This post makes me so sad.

  5. Your point #2 is critical. The women's section should be kept for women ONLY. if the layout requires men to walk through it, this will become a problem. (I think this is a great argument for balconies!)

    My daughters were regulars at the weekday minyan when they lived at home. The fact that they were there kept the women' section for women only. Our rabbi and the gabbaim of the minyanim made a point of clearing it for them, and I give them credit for it. But part of the responsibility lies with those of us on the distaff side. If we want men to respect our space, we should also respect it and make regular use of it, to the extent of our own abilities to do so.

    I can't comment on the halachic issues of making the Ezras Nashim larger on Shabbat and smaller during the week, but a portable mechitza can make some sense. My daughters certainly prefer a smaller space that is reserved to a larger one that the men have to be shooed out of.

    One thing that you left out is that the women must have direct access. There should be some signage to allow a visitor to find her space. Men should not be permitted to daven in the hallway in front of the door that women need to use. They also should not stand between the door and the women's section.

    The last point isn't about the mechitza, it's about the men. No one likes to be stared at. She is probably there to say Kaddish, and wants to do so without causing a fuss, or having furniture schlepped around to accommodate her. Having a space that is reliable and comfortable isn't about politics or feminism, it's about caring for a person in a time that might be one of personal sorrow. Make her welcome, and you've made a real kiddush Hashem.

  6. This is probably a subtopic of a broader vision issue which is not very popular to discuss - roles in Judaism (e.g. women, synanagogues..)
    Joel Rich

  7. I'm with you- you've named some very significant factors. I'd add layout to the list- if you have side-by-side seating, set up the women's section with the same prayer-focused layout as the men's section. If the chairs are just shoved in there, while the men face around a table, or in nice orderly rows, it won't feel welcoming. Similarly- let the women's chairs face the same direction. And most of all (this is the ezrat nashim layout issue for beginners, coming up): make sure that the door is open, not locked. The words "would you like me to open the ezrat nashim for her", said to my partner, do Not make me feel welcome. (All the more so because I also daven in egalitarian prayer spaces).

  8. Mrs. S-
    Thanks - an excellent point.

    Yes, that's a classic problem (referring to what you wrote at the end). The Kesef Mishneh writes that this is the reason why krias hatorah is in the middle. (Although the Chasam Sofer had other ideas.)

    I can imagine several problems with balconies, ranging from complaints about climbing steps to serious A/C issues to structural challenges in today's cheap construction.


    You bet.

    Yes, orientation is an issue. And those words ("would you like me to open the ezrat nashim") make me cringe.

  9. I agree with much of what has been said and I have an addition.

    Please do NOT shush, quiet, or shame women who wish to pray out loud in the women's section. I have been shushed by women and men for daring to pray aloud (albeit quietly), never loud enough to be considered a kol ishah issue. Being told that I am not "allowed" to pray while sitting behind a mechitzah, following local minhag, is one of the things that has soured me in orthodox synagogues. (Sadly it has happened to me in more places than not.)

    A serious Jewish woman who loves to pray

  10. Serious-
    Sorry to hear of your experiences. There certainly is a requirement that we pray in a voice that is low enough to avoid disturbing others in their prayers, but if you are keeping to that then there should be no trouble.

  11. I'm joining this conversation a bit late, but I'll put in my two cents about a higher mechitzah. For me, the issue isn't the height, it's the material and design. A glass-topped mechitzah, even a smoked-glass one, is one thing, but a "Berlin Wall" mechitzah--here's an example--is another matter entirely.

    True story: I once saw a video of a Selichot service on an Orthodox blog. When I asked why there were men in the women's balcony, I was told that that wasn't the women's balcony, but rather a balcony outside of the shul library/beit midrash that overlooks the main sanctuary. When I asked where the women were, the blogger responded, "Behind the mechitzah, of course." I figured that there were only two possibilites--either the women's section was on one or both sides of the men's section, or what I had thought was the back wall of the sanctuary was actually the mechitzah!!! If the latter is the case, I'll never set foot in that place--as far as I'm concerned, if I can't see and I can't hear, I might as well davven/pray at home, no matter how close to the front of the sanctuary the women's section is.

  12. Hi Shira,
    Thanks for commenting. I definitely agree that the material used for the mechitzah makes a significant difference, both from a practical perspective and from a psychological perspective. I'm not a fan of all-transparent, but our mechitzah in my first shul was a simple lattice that was (1) halachic, (2) inexpensive and (3) friendly.