[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?