Some Congregants are More Equal Than Others

I spend a lot of my time surfing the web. (Do they actually use that expression anymore or is that like a dad thing at this point?) One thing I like to do is check out various synagogue sites. I like to see how they’re laid out, how the information and navigation links are presented, and more importantly, the general tone or vibe of the congregation. After all, the shul’s website is usually a potential congregant’s first impression. One phrase that I see repeatedly is something like: “Our synagogue is a fully egalitarian congregation…”

So your synagogue is egalitarian? Is it really?

The usual explanation of this term in Jewish life is pretty simple: men and women are treated equally in all aspects of Jewish ritual and opportunity. But there’s a condescension baked into that definition. Men have always enjoyed the privilege of open access to all avenues of involvement in Jewish life: acting as clergy, synagogue leadership, and fully participating in the service. So yes, now, women and girls have the same access—because the men who have always been in charge have deemed it acceptable.

But my observation is that egalitarian does not mean equal. The door may be open in a way that it historically never was in past generations, but it would be better if we tore down the structure altogether and inhabited one shared open space that didn’t require entry in the first place. To belabor the metaphor—Judaism sometimes seems like one of those all male country clubs that has “graciously” allowed women to be members.

But that’s probably not your synagogue’s environment. Your shul treats men and women equally you say? Great, just go over these quick checklist items:

  • Do you require all women to have their heads covered as you do all men? Do girls have to wear kippot in the religious school like the boys do?
  • If you teach kids and adults how to put on tefillin, is there a “requirement” for boys and an “option” for girls?
  • Do all bat mitzvah girls wear a tallit? (You can say, Yes, most do, but then do most boys wear one too?)
  • When you call up congregants for aliyot, do you include “Cohen” or “Levi” for both? Is there a difference if a woman is married?
  • If you have guidelines for how to dress at b’nei mitzvah, is it basically just a bunch of policies on shoulders, knees, and straps?

To be sure, a lot of this is generational. At the beginning of my career, a frequent topic of a girl’s bat mitzvah speech was that she was the first one in her family to have a bat mitzvah ceremony. I almost never hear that anymore. And it’s not fair or realistic to instantly pass an edict making kippah and tallit a mandatory condition of service attendance for all women.

So we start with the current generation–and there are some changes that we can begin right now. Have all kids in the religious school wear kippot. Simple. It’s really not a big deal. Little kids will just take it for granted–everyone is supposed to have their heads covered in temple. Stop “letting” girls try on tallit (and later tefillin) and just assume it’s part of the religious curriculum and expectation of b’nei mitzvah. This might be unfamiliar and jarring for some parents–but I suppose allowing an opt-out policy is at least a little better than the current opt-in that exists in many congregations.

And speaking of kippot, can we take every last one of those ridiculous doily head covering things and burn them. Or at least put them away to use for when we do some Purim skit set in the 1970s.

Cantor Matt Axelrod has served Congregation Beth Israel of Scotch Plains, NJ since 1990. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and a national officer of the Cantors Assembly. Cantor Axelrod is the author of Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider's Guide, and Your Guide to the Jewish Holidays: From Shofar to Seder.

2 comments on “Some Congregants are More Equal Than Others

  1. Sheldon Levin



  2. Pingback: Shifting into Neutral – Cantor Matt Axelrod

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