Monday, September 27, 2010

Our Sukkot in an Ortho shul: Inclusion by design

Part one is here.

Our friends' synagogue gives inclusiveness a high priority, and that attitude is made clear by, among other things, the architecture and design of their building.

The first thing that one notices is the wheelchair ramp at the building's entrance. But what's really hard to miss is the unusual design of their sanctuary.

Make no mistake about it: This is an Orthodox synagogue, with a mechitzah separating the men's and women's sections. The side-by-side sections are equal in size, which is not necessarily unusual. What's unusual is that the bimah, the platform on which prayers are led and the Torah (Bible scroll) is read, was specifically designed to be "neutral territory." The T-shaped bimah, with its "top" in front of the Aron Kodesh and its "bottom" extending about halfway into the sanctuary, is surrounded completely by a mechitzah. There are four gates in this mechitzah, two from the men's section and two from the women's section. (In each section, one gate leads to a few steps, while the other leads to a wheelchair ramp.) During the 95% of the service which, by mesorah/tradition or halachah/Jewish religious law, is led by men only, there are only men on the bimah. When a woman enters the gate to speak or to lead a non-mandatory prayer, such as a prayer for Israeli soldiers or a mi-shehberach (prayer for the sick), all of the men leave the bimah (except for the man holding a Torah scroll between readings), closing the gate behind them. (The woman proceeds to the lecturn near the Aron Kodesh, while the man holding the scroll is separated from her by the amud/reading desk at the back of the bimah.) When the woman leaves the bimah, she closes the gate behind her, and the men return to the bimah.

Clearly, great efforts were made, in planning this sanctuary, to help women feel welcome in public prayer. I salute the architects, designers, and planners of this building for the thought that went into the construction of this extraordinary Orthodox synagogue.


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