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Does mixed seating at shul really hurt your kavannah?

Originally posted on Dov Bear
By Chometz Ben Yayin

No. I don’t pray to a cross, and no, I’m not an angry davener.

Let me explain.

I live on the upper west side. I have for more than ten years. I have done the usual thing regarding shul which is OZ by night and The Jewish Center Shabbat morning.

But week after week and year after year of meaningless socializing and feeling lack of meaning in my prayers. I decided to try out Kehillat Hadar. An open orthodox style minyan with mixed seating. 

I had a good right wing upbringing which of course equivocated davening in a mixed minyan as basically worse than praying alone, or not praying at all. Let alone that some extreme right wingers (eg; Nate) would say its a matter of yaharog v’al ya’avar (better to die rather than transgress).

To be honest I did have a nervous feeling as I walked in. I tried not to look around and I took a seat in the back.

Then, I noticed something. Nobody was talking during davening, women weren’t scoping out the men, and even more surprising, the men were not checking out the women. True, many of the women had talitot on so I suppose they could have been married. But many were sitting alone or with other women, so I presumed them to be single.

What truly struck me though, was the contrast to what I had been raised to believe, that mixed prayers are not modest, that women who go to mixed prayers are radical bra-burning feminists. The women at Hadar were dressed way more modestly than the typical red carpet fashion show that goes on at the Jewish Center. There were some crunchy, hippy types at Hadar. But the vast majority were just dressed plain nicely. No extra jewelry or sexually suggestive dresses to catch the guys’ attention.

Now, the davening. It was not rushed, and the tunes they used were totally traditional and taken from across the range. I particularly liked how they took the Yom Kippur tune from the description of the Kohen after the Avodah. In fact I kept humming the tunes I heard for the rest of the day. The Dvar Torah wasn’t too long and the kiddush was dairy which is my preference, and modest in size, not calculated to leave you feeling like you had a lead weight in your stomach. (They had mini twix bars, a favorite of mine).

When I first entered my stomach was doing flip flops. But as the service progressed I began to feel more comfortable and even to be honest snuck a few surreptitious glances at the women wondering which I might try to strike up a conversation with at kiddush.

Now, the most important aspect of my experiment. I enjoyed my prayers. For the first time in a long, long time I didn’t feel cynical or pressed to go to shul. My davening actually had meaning for me. I also felt I could actually make friends there. I got to chat with a few women and although I didn’t end up with any phone numbers, I felt it was much easier to initiate a conversation than at the Jewish Center or OZ where the size of the crowd, the cacophony of noise, and the imperviousness of the cliques is calculated against you. The conversations I had were also more interesting and not just shallow chatter.

I don’t know if going to Hadar will become a regular weekly habit for me. For now I’m just glad that I tried it. For my davening, for my social life, and for the mini Twix bars.
Search for more information about Hadar at 4torah.com

{ 32 comments… add one }
  • Lex Luthor May 16, 2012, 7:36 PM

    My friend had some shrimp one day and it tasted so good. It made him feel positive and happy, and that caused him to do a lot of good deeds. This would not have happened had he eaten his usual meal consisting of week old herring and egg kichel with sponge cake dipped in Slivovitz for dessert.

    • anon May 19, 2012, 11:46 PM

      what good deeds did he do? Or are you just typing out of your ass?

  • rob May 16, 2012, 7:45 PM

    It would never work for me at my shul. Too many Hot Chanies, too distracting. I prefer to cop a feel while reaching for the herring during kiddush

  • Ya'akov Ashkinazi May 16, 2012, 8:05 PM

    I go to a Chareidi Shul with mixed seating it makes me crazy. I always end up with the hard plastic folding chairs. Why can’t I get one of the chairs with the soft cushions!

    • ISR May 16, 2012, 9:21 PM


    • Rebecca May 17, 2012, 7:39 AM

      Good one

    • Alter Cocker May 18, 2012, 8:47 AM

      I missed the joke here.

      • philo May 21, 2012, 4:43 AM

        Mixed seating = soft & hard chairs mixed together

  • Dan May 16, 2012, 8:06 PM

    1. My favorite part: after extolling how nobody looks at the women, he admits to checking them out.

    2. Of course the women are asxual. This type of feminists are always repressing their sxuality and pretending to be men.

    3. If you’re using UWS orthodoxy as your basis for comparison…

    • vey May 16, 2012, 11:12 PM

      Darn, I was all excited to poiny out that hypocritical contradiction.

      • JZ May 17, 2012, 7:20 AM

        Additionally, why does it matter how the women were behaving? The mechitza is primarily to make it more difficult for him to check out them. It may serve a comparable role for some women, but that’s not its primary purpose.

        I’ll tell you guys something that’ll blow your mind. Most churches have mixed seating and women aren’t showing up in string bikinis or making out in the pews either (I’m a convert). This does NOT mean, however, that Jews should look to the gentile world (especially in Western countries) to set their own internal standards of modesty.

        Gotta love orthodox Jews who proudly live on the margins of halachic practice.

        • Prometheus May 17, 2012, 2:46 PM

          Gentile lurker here. There is among churches an enormous variety of dress and style for services, from modest and plain in many Quaker services to fashionable to rather conservative to shoddy and immodest by any measure.

          A friend of mine of Greek heritage, but who is no longer religious, described to me his shock upon entering a Roman Catholic service. In Orthodox Christian services, semi-formal conservative attire is customary and more traditional women often wear veils; attire might not be as customary among Orthodox Jews but probably often in the same order of magnitude of tznius. The Catholic lassitude in attire after Vatican II (a major liberalizing church counsel in the early 1960s) among younger worshippers astounded my admittedly non-religious friend.

  • KosherUnicorn May 17, 2012, 2:07 AM

    Not a fan of mixed seating. Mixed seating would just interfere with my unrestricted view of all the handsome frum guys on our side of mechitza.

    – Yisroel

    • pj May 17, 2012, 12:36 PM

      Then you can take shalom home with you, and you will have “Shalom al Yisrael”.

  • danielGA May 17, 2012, 3:19 AM

    one advantage is that guys, when they’re by themselves, sit there and talk and shoot the shit and play grabass, but when you’re around women you mind your Ps and Qs and try to not look foolish, thus you end up paying more attention to the davening.

  • Chometz Ben Yayin May 17, 2012, 9:38 AM

    Thanks for reposting, I’m glad my post led to public discussion.
    As to my checking out the women, I did it surreptitiously, not ogling over the mechitza as is done in more “orthodox” shuls. Another thing is I agree with DanielGA. In mixed seating guys tend to behave better. Less talking and more davening. They know the women won’t take the kind of BS that goes on when men sit by themselves.

    • Dan May 17, 2012, 4:17 PM

      Oh, you did it surreptitiously, that makes it much better. So the part you liked was that you could check them out without being obvious.

  • Me May 17, 2012, 4:01 PM

    This person is missing the point that a lot of people do that even if you are not ogling women the fact remains that Halacha requires a synagogue to have a mechitzah and Davening in a shul without one is assur. One can Daven without one in an ad hoc minyan in place that is not a regular established place of prayer but even then the men and women need to be separate they just don’t need a physical barrier in between them. If some one can quote halachic sources (rather than just how they feel) that say I’m wrong I’d love to hear them.

  • Anon May 17, 2012, 7:39 PM

    I grew up going to Xian churches. Believe me, a lot of boys and men stared at the girls and women, even if they were dressed modestly, rather than concentrating on the prayers. The mechitzah really does serve a useful purpose. But as “Me” points out, halachah is halachah. Even if it doesn’t resonate with you or seem so bad when you break it, we still need to commit to following it. If you just observe the mitzvot you feel like observing, that eventually leads to dropping more observance, and complete assimilation. Ours is a religion of faith and accepting the holy teachings of our forefathers — people have tried to make it a buffet free-for-all, but it just doesn’t work.

    • bratschegirl May 20, 2012, 10:54 AM

      > If you just observe the mitzvot you feel like observing, that eventually leads to dropping more observance, and complete assimilation.

      This might seem logical at first glance, but it fails to account for the widespread phenomenon of those who begin in the Reform/Conservative/etc. community and who grow toward more traditional observance. With respect to those who start out frum and follow the trajectory you describe, in at least some cases what’s to blame is realizing that one’s former community sees no shades of grey between “Observant according to my standards” and “apikoros.”

    • Anonymous May 20, 2012, 12:03 PM

      I had gone to Reform and Consevative services for various people’s bar mitzvah’s, weddings, etc. but I had never been to an Orthodox sevice until I lived in Israel with my husband. Growing up Catholic, I was totally shocked. It was like you walked into a bus station or something but with a little less gravitas. People were talking, walking in and out, pretty much doing whatever they felt like.

      Catholic church, even today, is exactly like what Catholic school was always stereotyped as. You are *silent*. You pay *attention*. Your body is in the exact position it is supposed to be in at the time it’s supposed to be. When you kneel, your hands are folded and rested on the back of the pew in front of you. Your butt is not touching the seat. (Exception may be made if you are over 85.) When you go to Communion, your hands are folded to show that you are engaged in an act of devotion and not talking a walk to the 7/11. After receiving Communion you kneel silently (with your butt off the seat and your hands folded) for as long as it takes the rest of the church to communicate. Feel free to close your eyes (thus looking especially devout) and day dream if this takes more than 15 minutes, but don’t move or speak. (This is training that will help you in college, in corporate meetings, and in many other circumstances throughout life. )

      If you fail to do these things, your parents are going to shoot you looks of death and you are going to catch holy hell in the car home. When you become a parent, it is your job to give your kids the look of death. My sister’s husband told me that one time when he and his three brothers got back from church his father lined up chairs in the living room and made them sit there silently for one hour since they had been horsing around in church. You are not “scoping” anybody out in church because you are paying attention so you are ready for the next response or action. Your parents are probably going to quiz you on the gospel verse/homily on the ride home.

      We don’t need any mechitzahs and if we did have them it would be a disaster because nobody’s mother would be sitting with them to give them the look of death.

      Nobody is scoping out anybody because the

      • Catholic Mom May 20, 2012, 12:06 PM

        That was me above.

  • Chometz Ben Yayin May 18, 2012, 6:32 AM

    Well there are some that say better to daven at home rather than without a mechitza. I disagree. Especially for those who don’t have an orthodox background, where they may only be familiar with seeing non Jewish families going off to pray together, as opposed to seeing men going to shul themselves, and the women coming alone later.
    As for me. I am sure Hashem knows whats in my heart, and if from time to time I need a break from the UWS b—s—, and would go to a service theat enhances my personal prayers, I don’t think he will look severely on it.

    • Lex Luthor May 18, 2012, 2:52 PM

      While there are some people who say better to eat old herring with egg kichel than shrimp, I disagree.


  • ModernOrthodoxObserver May 18, 2012, 12:20 PM

    where in the Torah does it say that a shul has to be separate seating? I don’t know about you, but the concept of the mechitza in reality is basically a barrier, not a blockade. Mechitzot have actually become more extreme over the past 10-20 years, partially, I feel, due to the shidduch phenomenon.

    • Dan May 18, 2012, 1:39 PM

      Due to the shiduch phenomenon? Elaborate on that please.

    • poo May 24, 2012, 7:29 AM

      so basically you’ve never heard of the oral law.

  • thinking outloud May 19, 2012, 11:12 AM

    The Rav (R’ Soloveitchik) was against mixed seating in shuls so much so that he famously said it was better to stay home on Rosh Hashana and miss Shofar than to go to a shul with mixed seating. Also I think he may have said that if you go to a shul with mixed seating for a simcha (i.e., and not to daven) you should be careful to NOT answer amen to any brachos you hear there.

  • WayNorth May 20, 2012, 7:32 AM

    I am a pretty liberal orthodox Jew. I have no problems with anyone doing whatever they want. However, instead of making this an orthodox thing, I.e, that the orthodox world is crazy for using a Mechizta, why not simply say, I prefer to be conservative?
    Orthodox Judaism has rules, that define it. If you don’t like the rules, simply follow conservative Judaism.
    People that constantly look at others and find the need to comment on them all the time, I think, are the ones that yearn to be more but cannot find the strength and courage to do be like the ones they comment on.
    As an orthodox Jew, I don’t care if you think that a Mechizta is extreme, it is no more or less extreme than eating kosher or davening each day.
    Be what you want to be and focus on your mission in life so that your friends and family benefit from your strengths, and let god worry about the extremists, after all he is the ultimate police and we will answer to him.

  • x May 24, 2012, 5:54 AM

    Um, you don’t have to be married to wear a tallit. Just bar/bat mitzvah age…

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