Reopening, Rethinking, Expanding: A Time For Feminist Hope In The COVID-19 Pandemic

By: Fruma Landa  |  October 29, 2020

By Fruma Landa, Editor in Chief

The weeks leading up to the High Holidays are usually a time of increased religious angst for me. It is a time that once again reminds me that only three men, men who can be peers of mine, can nullify my vows. It is a time of physical and emotional pain, spending hours trying to peer over the mechitza (traditional separation between men and women in synagogue) to catch a glimpse of the Torah scrolls. It is a time of discomfort, feeling the stares of people shocked to see a woman with her arbah minim (four ritualistic species taken together for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot) in shul. As a religious feminist, these are painful times. My joy and love for the holiday season is diminished as I am reminded of how much further our communities’ inclusivity needs to progress. 

Aside from the angst and the pain, there are aspects of the holidays that I look forward to all year. I find contentment knowing I will not be the only woman in shul on time for Shachris (morning prayer service), and I revel in the thought of not being alone in the women’s section for Mincha and Maariv (evening and night time prayer) services. It is perhaps the only time where I can count on seeing women walking to shul (synagogue), in addition to the men. These dialectics — my comfort in times where women take part in the communal rituals, as well as the pain stemming from the rituals that exclude me based on my gender, are hard for me to process in tandem.  

In addition to this usual Orthodox feminist cognitive dissonance, this year had an added layer of complexity. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my shul, like many, changed their usual High Holiday protocol to safely accommodate those who want to pray. These protocols often resulted in equating many experiences of women and men. Many shuls limited aliyot (the calling of, traditionally, an adult male to the Torah) for men on Simchat Torah (a Jewish holiday celebrating the Torah), a time when men often take the expectation of getting called up to the Torah for granted. While this is a result of pandemic procedures — not a theological choice — and will God-willing not be repeated next year, it is something I found myself taking comfort in. For the first time in my life, I witnessed men being excluded from communal rituals too. 

During the hoshanot (traditional ritual where congregants often circle around holding their arbah minim) service, the men, like the women in many shuls have been doing for years, stood in their place watching as one congregant circled the bima (table that the Torah is rested upon during Torah reading) in the traditional hoshanot service. As I sat in my seat watching the hoshanot service, I reflected on the past year. I felt more included into the tzibbur (congregation) than I had the year before. Finally, I felt included, doing what the men were doing. Yet, while I found comfort in the shared experience, I recognized that, once again, this did not come about through an ideal situation and I found myself praying that next year this ritual will be safe to do. 

Over the past few months, many more men have been forced into praying alone at home, not unlike the way women have been doing for years. Men have been learning at home too, struggling to adapt to life without their batei midrash (communal Torah study places). For the duration of those times, I found solace in the equality of the religious experience, while struggling with the notion that this is due to limited religious rituals, something deeply painful and life altering for men used to a communal prayer and learning environment. That is not to say this wasn’t painful for me too. There are things that I lost — I missed my makom (place) and seforim (Jewish books) in the Stern beit midrash and had to adapt to praying alone. But, there were also things I gained — I had access to many more shiurim (Torah lectures) happening over Zoom — lectures that as women I did not have access to while in-person. 

Currently, as places of worship and Torah study, as well as YU, reopen, men are going back to taking their place in shuls and batei midrash, while I watch the singular few months where I felt increased levels of inclusion and solidarity, as well as the Torah learning opportunities I gained slip through my fingers. 

Living in Washington Heights is especially painful. Every spare space on the Wilf Campus has been transformed into a beit midrash for study or shiur (the Torah lecture component of the UTS program for Wilf students) and many minyanim (communal prayer services) are scheduled to take place. Unfortunately, I am not welcome to learn in any of the Wilf batei midrash, a standard not upheld on the Beren campus, where I have frequently seen men learning in the Stern beit midrash, nor have I been guaranteed that the minyanim will have mechtizot to accommodate women. 

After months without shuls and batei midrash, men too, can finally understand a little bit of the tension and struggle women face with wanting to take part in religious rituals but not having a place to do so. I recognize that times are tough, but more is necessary to be done to ensure the inclusion of women. Right now, as we begin to reopen our YU community, we have the chance to take our past experiences and turn it into something productive — such as including women in places of prayer and Torah study. The narrative is in our hands; we can either learn and grow from our experience, or we can return to the way life was before, forgetting to look outside ourselves, losing this chance to make a difference.