(Outside) The Gates Of Prayer

On Shabbat, the 2nd of Av, about a week before Jews across the world fasted to mourn the destruction of the Temples and Jerusalem, I accidentally cried in shul.

I had arrived at a large beit knesset (prayer sanctuary) in a fairly religious neighborhood in a large city in Israel. It was the day after my nephew’s bris, and my family had gathered in Israel to celebrate our beautiful new baby boy. My father and I scurried through throngs of children playing outside before splitting, he entering the main sanctuary, and I going around back to the entrance to the women’s section.

When I arrived, the door was padlocked. I searched for a lock or a lever, some way to open the door, convinced that I was missing a tricky door handle. I searched for a minute or two, and then looked for another entrance. After carefully circling the building thrice, re-jiggling the initial door, peering through windows and into the main doors, even searching the building for a different minyan (prayer group) with an accessible women’s section, my heart sunk, as I realized that the women’s section was locked.

I didn’t want to disrupt anyone else’s davening (praying) space or tefillah (prayer). I didn’t want to draw attention to myself or invite any funny glances, as “feminist” or “unorthodox” gestures often do. I didn’t want to be an activist. I was terrified of anyone, especially myself, misreading my intentions.

All I wanted to do was daven (pray). So much halachic (Jewish law) literature talks about how we should make an effort to daven with a minyan (traditionally a quorum of 10 men), and how it’s preferable to daven in a makom tefillah (designated prayer space), whenever possible. All I wanted was to pray b’rov am, in the manner that our tradition teaches will glorify God’s name.

What could I even do? Send a man to find my father to ask the gabbai if he knows who might have a key to the ezrat nashim (women’s section)? By that point, we would have all missed half the service, and that wasn’t fair for me to do to anyone. The whole point of being there was to daven, and I didn’t want to disrupt anyone else’s chance to do that.

Instead, I just asked a man rushing by if he could get me a siddur (prayer book), and he quickly grabbed one for me from inside the sanctuary, before rushing back in to communally commune with God. So, as I stood outside behind the shul with my siddur, peeking through a barred window, trying to figure out what part of the service they were up to, I felt the rush of emotion open up the gates of tears.

Anger, at my coed yeshiva day school education which had set me up with wildly unrealistic expectations and hopes for being a frum, female adult in the real world, by demanding timely attendance at minyan every single day for both boys and girls.

Gratitude, to the large Modern Orthodox synagogue in the Long Island community near the medical school I attend, which always has a women’s section, and usually at least one other woman praying; where the one time the women’s section was locked, a number of men independently noticed and declaimed it as disgraceful, and one man even climbed over the mechitza (divider between men and women’s sections) to unlock the door from the inside.

Longing, for my recent college religious community, where more women attended minyan than men, and where my presence at daily minyan was both expected and valued.

Sadness, that in this huge Jewish community, in the State of Israel, where children were running about outside, and men crowded into the main sanctuary of the shul, there was not another woman who wanted to attend mincha (afternoon services) on a Shabbat afternoon. Even if some women can’t make it to shul for whatever reason, why is there no optimism that some women will want to serve God through communal prayer and torah reading?

Why aren’t we communally encouraging women to explore and expand our relationships with HaShem through classical avodah (religious worship) and traditional communication?

On our walk home from shul, my father said “maybe this is supposed to push you into the spirit of brokenness for the Nine days.” As we move out of Av and into Elul, I pray through the perpetually open gates of tears that we can encourage both men and women to truly get close to God, through every means possible, so that we will be able to bring the rebuilding of the ultimate house of worship, speedily, and in our days.

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