By the time I arrived at the synagogue, the service had already started. I entered what I thought was the women’s entrance–the sign outside that said נשים meant “women,” right?—but there weren’t any women around. Not in the balcony that overlooked the room where the men were sitting, not in the side room peering into the service through a screen. Additionally, I didn’t know if maybe, as a woman, I wasn’t allowed in those rooms either. My experience as a woman studying in Israel was going to be different.
So I sat on a bench in the lobby and I waited. After several long minutes, a girl who was about ten years old came in, looked at me shyly, and asked me in hurried Hebrew if I was looking for her family.
I nodded. Her father had invited me to Shabbat dinner and to the service, so here I was. She led me to the side room and gave me a prayer book, tracing the Hebrew words with her finger so I could follow along. It was difficult to see the cantor and the rabbi, difficult to follow along with the words when I couldn’t read his lips. I stumbled over the words, trying to mumble the ones I knew, standing and turning and bowing when the girl next to me did, sitting again at her lead.
It was a humbling experience to be taught the words and rituals by a ten-year-old, and I was suddenly grateful for the wicker screen that at least partially obscured me from the view of the congregation. At the same time, it felt like a huge divide between them and me; it singled me out as the “other.” As a woman.
I was not allowed into their sacred space, and perhaps this is why no other women were present: if they aren’t required to go to Friday night services, why show up and participate in the discomfort of segregation?
Perhaps nowhere is the awareness of gender roles more heightened than in what is possibly the world’s most religious city: Jerusalem. In many ways, the city is a very traditional place: in religious circles, women often wear skirts, long sleeves, and head coverings; non-religious women are sometimes expected to conform to similar standards at religious sites. As a woman studying in Israel, there have been moments like the one in the synagogue where I struggled with the role of women in this unfamiliar culture.
When I went to the Western Wall, the last remaining wall of the temple, I was relegated to the “women’s side” and separated from the men’s section by the high barrier. Unlike the men’s side, the women’s section was so small that we had to press up against each other to touch the wall and pray. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of injustice and frustration rising up in me; I wanted space to pray, and I wanted that space for the women around me.
And yet I understood the religious ideas behind the division. My faith in Jesus is the most defining thing about who I am; it influences every decision I make and perspective I take. So how can I hold others to blame for holding to a standard that they believe God has set for them when I do the same thing, even if those standards are different?
These are questions I haven’t yet learned how to answer. But I do know one thing: I am a guest in this culture. I am here to learn from and try to understand the people of this place, the things they believe, and the way they live their lives. So for me, wearing a skirt and sitting in the women’s section is not about giving up the fight for women’s rights. Perhaps wearing a skirt and praying in the women’s section is an opportunity for me to show respect to other people’s beliefs. And maybe this respect can build a bridge towards mutual understanding and, more than that, friendship.
Tori Paquette is a Jewish Studies major at Colby College and studied abroad with IFSA at the Rothberg International School at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel in Spring 2019. She is an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-To-Study Program.