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.
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