Career mom balks at attending beau’s traditional shul

I am a Jewish woman in my 30s with two teenage daughters and a job as a CFO at a large technology company. Because I have been raising my daughters largely on my own, I worked doubly hard to parent them and advance my career in a male-dominated field. I have not had much time for dating, but a few months ago I met a nice man, a doctor, whom I have been seeing for a few months. I like this guy a lot. He has been very kind to my daughters, accepting of my career priorities, and it seems things are headed in a more serious direction. But I am having a dilemma.

My new beau is an Orthodox Jew who spends most Saturdays and many holidays in a synagogue where men and women sit separately. The High Holy Days are coming up, and he has asked that my daughters and I attend services with him at his shul. As an independent woman raising her daughters to be strong, independent women, I have a serious aversion to the way men and women are separated at his shul and the fact that only men are called to the Torah. I like this man and respect his devotion to Judaism, but I am very conflicted about bringing myself and my girls into this world where men and women are treated differently. — Beth in the East Bay

Dear Beth: A situation you call a dilemma many others might see as a blessing. You are a woman with a successful career in a thriving field, two daughters and a suitor (a Jewish doctor, no less) with seemingly serious intentions. Mazel tov. And where many people date others with similar lives and interests, your beau brings something new to the table.

Of course, Mensch understands your apprehension, and you’re not alone. For many who do not grow up in the Orthodox tradition, the segregation of men and women in certain situations and their differing roles in respect to Jewish practice and ritual can seem strange. Whether having distinct roles and seating sections in shul means that Orthodox women are relegated to a lesser status than that of their husbands has long been a matter of debate.

Of course, it’s important to note that the debate rages largely among those outside the Orthodox tradition, many of whom have little exposure to it. There are many women within that world, who either have been raised Orthodox or have chosen it, with high-powered careers and solid feminist beliefs. These women do not necessarily feel any less strong or independent than you. Many are raising daughters to be successful, ambitious, independent thinkers.

Many do not see separate seating sections as stratification. A Chabad rabbi tells us men and women sit separately in shul so as to focus more thoroughly on prayer rather than on one another, and also that separate seating serves an egalitarian function by ensuring that single men and women will not stand out from, or feel less than, their coupled compatriots.

Which is not to say there are not conservative thinkers (or nonthinkers) in every culture and religious tradition who would prefer the world looked more like it did 100 years ago, when men called all the shots. But if this gentleman has chosen to invite you into his life, it is not likely he is one of them.

Bring your daughters to his shul during the High Holy Days. Introduce yourself to the women there and see for yourself what kind of people they are. You may be surprised to find a significant number with lives and values similar to yours. And many, like you, may not at the moment be committed to living wholly Orthodox Jewish lives. Many non-Orthodox Jews belong to Orthodox shuls, maybe because they were brought up in that tradition or simply are attracted to the modality. Feel free to ask the rabbi or anyone you encounter there how he or she feels about the fact that only men are called to the Torah. But go in with an open mind and a glad heart. L’shanah tovah.

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Jonathan Harris

Jonathan Harris is a synagogue administrator and writer-editor living in San Francisco with his wife, three daughters and an ungrateful cat. Send your questions to advicemensch@gmail.com.