A balancing act
How does a congregation maintain tradition while embracing progressive ideas? A Baltimore synagogue made changes carefully, eventually earning the approval of traditionalists and feminists.
BALTIMORE — Maintaining the balance between modernity and tradition is an age-old challenge for all types of faith communities: When religious leaders make a change, some congregants see it as a move backward, others as a step forward. People may question whether it's driven by core religious values or by a desire to keep pace as society shifts.
Such decisions have been known to split congregations. But a quarter-century of trust has held a Baltimore synagogue together as it prepares to place a partition down its center aisle.
Called a mechitzah in Hebrew, the partition is a traditional fixtureseparating men and women. At Beth Tfiloh, a large Modern Orthodox synagogue, the wide aisle between the women's side and the men's has long sufficed as a symbolic separation to keep them focused on things holy. But it isn't enough for some of the more observant Orthodox Jews in the community.
Modern Orthodox synagogues aren't as strict about traditional practices as their Ultraorthodox counterparts, but very few go without the mechitzah. And for Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, adding one was important to securing the Orthodox part of Beth Tfiloh's identity. But he's equally committed to the modern side - especially when it comes to the evolution of women's roles. The synagogue has always tried, he says, "to show that Modern Orthodox is not an oxymoron."
So when he announced his plan to add a mechitzah, he also unveiled a few changes designed to make women feel more valued. During a baby-naming ceremony, for instance, mothers will be able to join fathers on the bimah, the platform from which services are conducted.
The changes at Beth Tfiloh will be a remarkable experiment, says Blu Greenberg, an author and a founder of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance in New York. "There are probably fewer than a dozen [Modern Orthodox] synagogues that are trying to find a way in the service to bring women more fully into a participatory role."
Mr. Wohlberg says some congregants are upset about the "feminist changes," but are prepared to go along with them because of the mechitzah - and vice versa. "I never could have done one without the other. It's a very delicate issue. It didn't happen overnight. It took 25 years of credibility."
That's how long Wohlberg has been guiding this congregation, which includes a significant number of Jews who don't consider themselves Orthodox but are attracted by the welcoming atmosphere.
When Wohlberg first arrived at Beth Tfiloh, the membership was less than half of today's throng of 1,300. The current building was constructed in the 1960s, and the use of the center aisle to divide the sexes was a compromise between congregants who wanted mixed seating and those who preferred a mechitzah like the one in their original building in a different part of town.
Wohlberg has long hoped to incorporate a mechitzah. But the time didn't seem ripe until recently, when it became clear that a growing number of graduates of Beth Tfiloh's school wanted to follow more traditional practices - and they wouldn't worship at the synagogue without a mechitzah because they were used to having one when they worshiped at school.
Wohlberg won quick approval from the board of director, and now the only thing he is waiting for is the right kind of hinges. Rather than installing a low wall, the plan is to add small wooden doors to the pews on both sides of the center aisle of the round sanctuary. The doors are only as high as the pews themselves (not high enough, in some Orthodox rabbis' views).
While some might see the partition as a step backward, Beth Tfiloh has long been in the vanguard of expanding what's considered acceptable for women in Modern Orthodoxy. A few years ago, for instance, women here began carrying Torah scrolls in their part of the sanctuary during a celebration called Simchat Torah.
"Some people would be hysterical to see me touching this," says Eve Steinberg, Beth Tfiloh's executive director, as she removes one of the scrolls from the curtained ark at the front of the sanctuary to show a visitor.
Jewish law reserves certain uses of the Torah for men during religious services, and some people have never seen women handling the Torah, but there's nothing intrinsically wrong with it, Ms. Steinberg says.
A change that will take place once the mechitzah goes up relates to a series of prayers that men say during early morning services. Included is a statement thanking God for not making them women, which is meant to express gratitude for having obligations to God that are assigned only to Jewish men, Steinberg explains.
But because some women find it offensive, men will start saying the prayer softly or silently, and women will no longer be expected to say amen to it.
Most congregants greeted his announcements with support, Wohlberg says, although he knows that with such a diverse group, there will always be different opinions.
One enthusiastic supporter is Nina Auster, a graduate of Beth Tfiloh's high school and now a senior at Brandeis, a Jewish-sponsored university in Waltham, Mass. She says she would have preferred a divider between men and women all along, but she continued attending Beth Tfiloh to be with her family.
"Now they're implementing the mechitzah and it's amazing," Ms. Auster says. "There are a lot of kids from the high school that ... have grown a lot within their Judaism ... but they're not going to stay at Beth Tfiloh if it doesn't learn how to adapt to [this generation]."
Michelle Lax, whose children attend the school, says if she had her druthers, she'd sit with her whole family during services. "I'm an ardent feminist ... but because [the services] are so spectacular, I'm willing to [come here], even though women don't have equal access."
"I have no problem with separate seating ... but I think a mechitzah is demeaning to women," says Liebe Diamond, a longtime member of the synagogue and one of the nation's first female orthopedic surgeons. "It turns [women] into a sexual object rather than a complete person - they're separated specifically because they are female."
Dr. Diamond was the only member of Beth Tfiloh's religious-services committee to vote against the mechitzah (although not the only person to disagree, she says).
But she is too deeply connected to Beth Tfiloh to let this issue get under her skin. For 16 years she has worshiped three times a day here, a practice that's made her eligible to wear certain religious garments rarely worn by women in Orthodox synagogues.
"A lot of people came up to me after the decision [to add a mechitzah] and asked if I'd leave, and I said no," Diamond says. "We have to live in the possible world, and this for me is the best of all possible worlds. I've never run into anything that's perfect."
Whatever their disagreements, the congregants seem to take pride in the sense that Beth Tfiloh is a place where people like Diamond, Lax, and Auster all feel welcome.
Greenberg, the New York author, says that in her own life, feminism and Modern Orthodoxy coexist harmoniously. "I don't think every single thing has to be exactly equal and identical at every given moment, if, on balance, [men and women are treated as] equals in the eyes of tradition and in the eyes of the community," she says.
Eventually she would like to see Modern Orthodox women ordained as rabbis. To her, it would be a natural outcome of the "quiet but profound revolution" over the past few decades that has opened up the study of rabbinic texts to Jewish women.
She accepts, though, that change often comes in small steps, such as Beth Tfiloh's current efforts. "We have a long way to go to get there, but taking the past with us as we move along is what orthodoxy is about."