'Egalitarian' shul exhibition tests limits of halacha

A new exhibition of "egalitarian" synagogue designs give Orthodox women a more prominent place.

A new exhibition of "egalitarian" synagogue designs that give Orthodox women a more prominent place in the Jewish house of prayer tests the limits of Orthodox Jewish law and sometimes breaks them. "Egalitarian Spaces" is the title of the exhibition of original synagogue designs aimed at making a woman's visit in a synagogue a more pleasant experience. Many of the solutions offered in the exhibition may mingle the sexes too much, says Rabbi Ronen Lubitch of Nir Etzion, a religious settlement in the Carmel mountains. "Some of the ideas presented need adjustments before they can be used by an Orthodox congregation," says the rabbi who served as a halachic adviser to the exhibition. The modern Orthodox woman is fed up with crowded galleries, cramped rooms and walled-off spaces that are the women's sections of the contemporary Orthodox synagogue, says Kolech, a forum of Orthodox Jewish feminists, that sponsored the exhibition. "Many women dream of feeling a true belonging and participation in synagogue life," according to a catalogue advertising the exhibition, which opens at the Ramat Gan Museum of Israeli Art on October 10. "We hope to create a space that is inviting and comfortable, relaxed and spacious for both men and women," the catalogue states. "Women have been pushed away from the center of prayer and Torah reading out of concern that the limits of halacha will be transgressed." The designs to be presented are the result of a competition among architects and students from the Bezelel school of art and the Technion. Moriya Rosenfeld, the curator of the exhibition, said that there is a big gap between egalitarian processes in society and synagogue reality. "Architecture needs to meet this challenge," says Rosenfeld. "So far, none of the ideas presented in the exhibition have been implemented. But we hope the ideas presented will spark public discussion." Rosenfeld says that some of the designs transformed the separation wall (mechitza) into a functional space in the center of the synagogue. "You don't need a barrier because men cannot see women. Rather, an open space that contains the bima (stage) where the Torah is read separates between men and women." Rosenfeld says that Judaism is a very abstract religion. Therefore the role of architecture in the Jewish house of prayer is minimal. "Architects that competed were discouraged from designing something monumental. The focus was on removing obstacles to prayer, to encourage a feeling of closeness." However, Lubitch said that several prize-winning designs did not meet accepted Jewish practice. "In certain designs men have a clear view of women which is prohibited." Lubitch explained that separating the sexes emanates from respect for the synagogue and the importance of prayer. Separation enables concentration, purity of thought and prevents irreverence and distraction. Notwithstanding the limitations, one design managed to improve women's proximity and ability to see the prayer leader and Torah reader without being seen from the men's section. "A raised platform was placed between men and women where the Torah is read and prayer is led. The platform itself is a mechitza." Lubitch opposes looking for the most lenient opinion on the issue of the separation of the sexes in every case. He quoted from the book Sridei Eish, written by Rabbi Yechiel, an important halachic authority and Holocaust survivor, that every effort should be made to be lenient regarding a mechitza if it encourages women who would otherwise have stayed away from the synagogue to come. He said the exhibition is not an attempt to force change, rather its aim is to increase awareness of the women's perspective when designing and building synagogues. "We are not trying to cater to a feminist agenda," said Lubitch. "We just want to encourage more sensitivity to how a woman perceives her synagogue experience."