This Day in Jewish History

Walled-off Women Finally Get to Actually See Synagogue Service

The dedication of Rhode Island's Touro Synagogue was also a milestone in terms of gender equality in worship.

National Park Service Digital Image Archives

When a group of Sephardi Jews from the Caribbean dedicated America’s oldest surviving synagogue 251 years ago, they made history twice over.

Many a Jew revels in being able to see their gender opposites up in the women’s gallery or down in the main sanctuary. Husbands and wives exchange nachas-filled smiles, mothers wave to sons, daughters to fathers, sweets are pelted from above onto beaming bar-mitzvah boys.

But it wasn’t always like this.

Until the 1760s, women were veritably walled-off in synagogues, hidden behind mehitzot (barriers, in Hebrew) that were either too high to see over, or too opaque to see through (lest the sight of them distract the men praying below).

Gender segregation in Jewish public worship dates back to Temple times, when women were kept separate. The Babylonian Talmud explains why, mainly via concepts of modesty and attention to prayer. Orthodox synagogues are thus segregated spaces: the main prayer area that houses the aron ha’kodesh (holy ark, containing the Torah) and the bimah (prayer podium) are male-only. The degree of women's separation from men varied over the centuries, but a norm emerged in which women, seated in their designated sections, could not see the service being conducted - until the Touro Synagogue.

Enter the trendsetting American Northeast. In the maritime trading hub of Newport, Rhode Island, the Yeshuat Israel congregation of Sephardic "Marranos" – descendants of Jews expelled from Iberia in the 15th century, who had arrived by way of London, Amsterdam and Barbados – mobilized to construct a permanent and iconic house of worship that would do things differently.

Marrano-pilgrim stew

The Touro Synagogue, with its distinctive Palladian exterior and ornate interior, is the oldest-surviving synagogue in the United States and a powerful symbol of American religious pluralism that became a National Historic Site in 1943. President George Washington even sent the synagogue’s congregants a letter in 1790, pledging that the newborn country would protect its religious minorities from bigotry and persecution.

And the synagogue’s dedication on December 2, 1763 – during Hanukkah – also made history for Jewish women’s prayer rights.

Instead of being obscured, the new synagogue’s women’s gallery, which wrapped around the main sanctuary, was built with low balustrades that allowed views of the service below. This was radical at the time, marking a shift in consciousness regarding the place of women in synagogue worship. It also established a precedent that would come to be integrated into the architecture of subsequent synagogues in the U.S.

Interior of the Touro Synagogue. Courtesy of National Park Service Digital Image Archives

The exterior of the Touro Synagogue. Photo by AP

The inspiration for this architectural, and in a larger sense, socio-religious, innovation came from colonial American church worship, rather than anything happening across the ocean in Europe. Historians have argued that it was the more visible and active role of Christian pilgrim women in religious worship that galvanized female Jewish consciousness in colonial America, leading to the Newport synagogue’s new design and its adoption by other Jewish houses of worship across the continent.

The women’s gallery in the Touro Synagogue can therefore also be seen as a monument to the cultural cross-pollination that defines American society. 

Architectural rendering of the Touro Synagogue. Courtesy of Peter Harrison/ Library of Congress

Back in Jerusalem

Nowadays, while Touro remains an Orthodox synagogue with gender separation in place, like all other Orthodox synagogues, there are thousands of non-Orthodox synagogues (nearly 900 Reform congregations alone) across North America, where women can not only see the service unhindered or be seated with men, but can actively participate in and even lead prayers as rabbis.

As an aside, or in fact as part of one, long continuum, how apt is it that many of the founders and leaders of Israel's Women of the Wall movement (established yesterday in Jewish history) are American-born. In October, the group – dedicated to securing women’s prayer rights at Judaism’s holiest site – managed to smuggle into the Western Wall a micro-Torah, to stage what it claims was the first full bat-mitzvah service at the Kotel in history – with Sasha Lutt reading her portion from the holy scroll, in defiance of the rabbinic authorities.

So while December 2, 1763 may have been but a small step for Jewish womankind, it was an important milestone for a nascent consciousness that would propel Jewish women’s struggle against the Berlin Wall of a deeply gendered Judaism. Women are not immodest distractions. They are equal members of one faith. 

Bat mitzvah girl Sasha Lutt reads from the tiny Torah scroll smuggled into the Western Wall, Fri. Oct. 24, 2014. Photo by Miriam Alster