There Are No Shuls in Manhattan

How is it possible that in one of the most densely Jewish territories on earth I still can’t find an Orthodox synagogue that, as a woman, I can feel part of?

Bloomberg

When I was 18 years old, I spent a year studying at a women’s seminary called Migdal Oz in the middle of Israel. Toward the beginning of the year, a bunch of us students were packed into a classroom to hear the head of the seminary, Esti Rosenberg. I vividly remember her charging us to pray three times a day in accordance with Orthodox Jewish custom. Esti spoke of tefillah (time-bound prayer) creating a guiding framework for one’s day; not every prayer time would reach spiritual heights, but she encouraged us to cultivate the intention to see each day through this prism of regular prayer.

Six years later, and her words still inspire me to strive to pray three times a day, even if I’m not necessarily in a “spiritual mood.” It’s definitely gotten harder since my year in seminary, where praying was as easy as eating since I had all the time in the world. Now, living in New York City I have work and exercise and social pulls competing for my time. But though there are many days when I don’t manage to pray three times, it’s always a goal in the back of my mind.

I know that many within my own stream of Orthodox Judaism will say that, unlike my male counterparts, I’m not obligated to pray three times a day, and almost all will say that I am not obligated to pray with a minyan (quorum of ten). But there’s something about praying in a community that elevates the prayer service. Davening (praying) by myself can be a lonely and less uplifting experience. I tend to mumble through the prayers in a few minutes and sometimes even forget if I’ve already said specific prayers or not. In a minyan, however, I feel the focus and synchronicity of my fellow congregants, which triggers in me a more serious and fulfilling engagement with prayer.

In high school, summer camp and college, I was lucky enough to participate in minyans where, as a woman, I felt comfortable and welcome. I found minyans that divided the room in half equally with the mechitza (partition that separates women and men at prayer) that still welcomed me as a peer, as a part of the service, even if was men alone who actually led the prayers.

After college, I joined my friends in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. And ever since, I have been on a shul-hopping journey to find an environment that matches the experiences I had growing up. One might think that the task of finding a minyan would be simple in the city that hosts more than a million Jews. Unfortunately for me, it hasn’t been that easy. Most of the mainstream Orthodox shuls in Manhattan have made me feel like an outsider and bystander. Often I sit in a balcony watching all the “action” down below, or I watch the backs of the men from a small women’s section in the back of a room. I feel relegated, pushed out, unwelcome and unseen.

One Shabbat afternoon, I found myself in a one-room shul that didn’t even have a mechitza set up; it was clear that women’s attendance was an unusual event. The male congregants did invite me into the room, but proceeded to put up a temporary mechitza to wall me into the corner. I felt like I was crashing the party; like I wasn’t really supposed to be there. Needless to say, I haven’t been back to that shul.

Eventually, I branched out from the traditional Orthodox synagogues, and I found Darchei Noam, a peer-led minyan that encourages women to actively participate in the service while keeping to halakha (Jewish law), so women can lead the Friday evening Kabbalat Shabbat services, but not the prayer that follows, Maariv (the evening service). At Darchei Noam, I found a “house of prayer” that views me as an important member of the minyan, one that is a valued contributor to tefilla and isn’t just crashing. I immediately felt at home. So now I go to (or at least aim to go to) Darchei Noam every Friday night and Saturday morning, along with any holidays that find me staying in Manhattan.

But even there my spiritual needs are not entirely met. Darchei Noam does not meet on weekdays and so I cannot pray with the community three times a day, every day. Beyond that, as my career develops, my professional constraints make it nearly impossible for me to attend services before work. I continue to pray by myself during the week, missing my college days when I had the time and space to be a part of a minyan.

I know that I occupy an odd position within Judaism in general and Orthodox Judaism in particular. I want to be a part of the service, but I still want a mechitza. I like being a part of the kehilah (community), and I love reading Torah as part of the service, but I still identify with the boundaries of Orthodoxy. I want to live a life encompassed by the framework of prayer, but I also want to have an active — or at least participatory — role in that framework. If only it were that easy.

Rebecca Borison is a technology journalist based in New York City. She is originally from Cleveland, OH, and graduated with a BA from the University of Pennsylvania in 2013.