Friday, October 22, 2010

When Separate Is Hurtful

While I often object to the inequitable implementation of separate seating in many synagogue settings, let me state unequivocally that I understand, and respect, the necessity for separate seating during tefilla. 

So, before moving on, I want to be crystal clear that I am not opposed to the concept of separate seating during prayer.

I'm not even addressing myself here to the issue of the implementation of separate seating during tefilla.  Today, I'm focusing on separate seating at non-tefilla events.

Frankly, I'm not a fan. And it seems that the type and number of communal events at which separate seating for men and women is being implemented is growing at a furious rate. 

Not too long ago, back in Baltimore, I attended a talk given by a very prominent rabbinic speaker in the Orthodox world.  The talk was about Derech Eretz, about the necessity in Jewish life to treat one another with kindness and consideration, which made my strong feelings over a breach in Derech Eretz at the event itself kind of ironic.

This program featured separate seating.  And here's how the seating was set up.  The men sat in the main sanctuary, in very comfortable chairs with tabletop shenders. Women had two seating choices.

We could either sit behind the mechitza or on folding chairs which were set up behind the men's section.

So even though I, as a woman, arrived early and paid the same admission fee to hear the speaker as everyone else, the very best seat I could get was either behind a mechitza or so far away from the speaker that he was difficult to actually see.

What really grabbed my attention that night was that my nephew came to the talk 45 minutes late and had access to a much more comfortable seat than I did, with a full view of the speaker at his podium.

I was so angry the whole evening that I could barely concentrate on the speaker's message.  How can I open my heart to hear a message of Derech Eretz when I am seething at the lack of it that is being exhibited toward me?

I'm guessing that the men who set up these events don't mean to be unkind.  They're just not women, so they never have to sit in the disadvantaged seats and they simply don't realize the lack of Derech Eretz.

At the same time, we women are guilty of being too docile and accepting inferior treatment.  We routinely enter a separate seating event, scope out the division and placidly take our disadvantaged places without opening our mouths.

Last night, I went with my husband and a woman friend to hear a concert/kumzitz in a very modest, one-room synagogue in another community.  I knew in advance that it was going to be separate seating.  As was the case back in Baltimore, we arrived early.  In fact, we were the first ones there.

And again, the separate seating set-up was, there's no other way to describe it, disrespectful.

The men had a large, open area with three seating options, including seats directly facing the performer.  The women's seats were crowded together to the performer's left, caged in behind a double row of tables that had been pushed aside, ironically, to make room for more seats for men.

I almost walked out.

And during the concert itself, when some lights were dimmed to enhance the ambiance, the lights were only dimmed in the men's section.  In "the back of the bus" where the women were crowded, the regular lights were not dimmed.  Our ambiance was not enhanced.

How many times do I have to shudder at the thought of "mehadrin" buses where women are, quite literally, forced to the back of the bus, regardless of the discomfort some women have riding in the back, especially when pregnant?

How many Jewish concerts do I have to attend where men fill all available empty spaces with joyous dancing but no one thinks in advance to partition a section of space so women can dance comfortably behind a mechitza?

How many lectures, concerts and other non-prayer events in the Orthodox community do I need to attend while seething at the lack of thoughtfulness?

In the secular world, one pays more for a premium seat at a concert, lecture or play.  I am tired of attending events where I am required to pay the same admission fee as those who automatically get the premium seats.  I'm weary of having my need to see the event and my ability to hear it compromised.  I'm tired of being cordoned off as if I have a communicable disease.  And I'm tired of having women not speak up.

In the famous 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision, an American court determined that, in the matter of educating different races in different facilities, separate is inherently unequal.

While that may be true in the case of educational facilities, it need not be true for non-tefilla events in the Orthodox world.  Guided by a little Derech Eretz, we can do better.

6 comments:

L'Shmoah said...

I am SO MUCH in agreement with you. But I have another more pressing reason to agree: I wear hearing aids. I read lips. If I am relegated to a seat in the back, far from the speaker, behind a mechitza, then FORGET IT! I will NOT be able to hear. However, I am NOT your docile accepting woman either. If I am going to an event, and I suspect there will be separate seating, I usually contact an organizer of the event BEFORE it happens, BEFORE it is set up and I request that is be set up in such a way as to accommodate my need. I always request SIDE BY SIDE seating with the mechitza going down the middle. I always request an UNOBSTRUCTED view of the speaker. If they cannot or will not accommodate me, not only will I not attend, but I will write publicly about the shanda they are perpetuating by not being inclusive. I believe that women can make this happen even without having the "excuse" of my disability. But you need to contact the organizers AHEAD of time and make them AWARE. YOu stated that you cannot see the speaker from the back. The fact of the matter is that ALL of us lipread to a certain extent. And ALL of us lose some of our hearing as we get older. And if we are relegated to the back, behind a mechitza, then we will NOT be able to hear. So you need to advocate for this -- but not AT the event. BEFORE it happens. Do not assume it will be accessible or inclusive. Call, ask, advise, request and finally demand. And ask your friends to do the same.

Moriah said...

At first I didn't know where you were going with this but after reading, I'm totally in agreement. Some discussion has to be made as to the accommodations made for women. We're not asking to sit on their side or to abolish separate seating. But when we are created equal, pay the same amount and arrive early, we should have a comfortable seat where we don't have to feel as if we have been banished to the nether worlds or strain to look over the heads of men. It's not right, it's disrespectful and it diminishes us.

Batya said...

I agree. It's a halacha problem of derech eretz treating women as garbage. I was horrified in a RBS shul on Shabbat at the kiddush to see that the men sat at long tables. Young boys were admonished to stand at the male children's tables and women had no seating option at all, just some round tables to stand at.

But it's the fault of the women in those communities for accepting it and not complaining.

In a different shul in my community there was a Bar Mitzvah kiddush. Four long tables with chairs, identically filled with food were set up. Men were told to stay away from the third so that women could get equal seats. Men there always sit down before women waiting while the women taking longer to make it in from the Ezrat Nashim.

Yocheved Golani said...

You took my thoughts and put them into eloquent words.

BTW, I was at that concert, too. I resented the poor seating for women also, plus the hard cookies and pretzels. Who on earth wants to hear someone munch crunchy food at a concert? I unerstand budgetary limits, but it would have been better to serve quiet popcorn or something equaly affordable.

And gosh, people! Turn off your cell phones at concerts, funerals, and public presentations of any kind. We came for the event, not to eavesdrop on your private life details.

Barbara R. said...

I agree 100% with the comments expressed by you, Rivkah, and by the other women as well.
My only disagreement is with Moriah's statement that "it diminishes us." Actually it dimishes the men who will go along with the seating for women. In my ideal world no man would attend a concert or talk where his wife has no chance to take part intellectually and auditorially [is that a word?].
barbara

Risa said...

I am with you on this one, so much! I have no problem with shuls and mechitzot (although there are shuls I prefer not to go to because I don't like the placement, but in principle I accept the need for it). I will not go to a concert or a shiur anymore if I know that it will entail not sitting with my husband. There are plenty of places where I can feel comfortable. As to kiddush, that is a problem because in that situation I am usually there for a specific simcha and one doesn't want to make a scene. In the place where I regularly daven it is stand up for all (and even if it were sit down, it wouldn't be separate).