Synagogue to unblend genders

Mechitzah: In a nod to tradition, Beth Tfiloh plans to install a symbolic wall to separate men from women at services.

November 05, 2003|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

After nearly four decades of worship in an open sanctuary, men and women at Beth Tfiloh Synagogue - one of the nation's largest Orthodox congregations - will soon have a symbolic wall to separate them.

Responding to a tilt toward tradition among a younger generation of Orthodox Jews nationwide, Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg plans to install a mechitzah, or partition in Hebrew - which divides the sexes and has its roots in the days of Jerusalem's ancient temple.

As a gesture to the congregation's many professional women - some of whom oppose a mechitzah - Wohlberg has also proposed more female participation in the otherwise male-dominated Orthodox service.

He's also asking the men to lower their voices when they say the traditional prayer in which they thank God for not making them women.

Since he announced the changes in his Yom Kippur sermon last month, Wohlberg's plan has been the talk of the Pikesville synagogue - and Baltimore's Jewish community. "It's all the buzz," said congregation member Marian Jackson, a 49-year-old geneticist who generally supports Wohlberg's changes.

Beth Tfiloh is a rarity, one of perhaps two dozen Orthodox synagogues in the country without a mechitzah - usually a curtain or a wall made of metal or wood. Currently, men and women at Beth Tfiloh worship in separate sections but without a physical divider.

The mechitzah is a distinguishing difference between the Orthodox and Judaism's other major branches, Conservative and Reform - both of which seat the sexes together and allow women full participation in the service.

In charting Beth Tfiloh's course, Wohlberg is trying to balance competing trends: the growing observance of Orthodox Jews and the active role women play in modern society.

"I think people are searching for tradition and searching for their roots," he said during a recent interview. "But at the same time, they want to feel as if they are equal and significant. I feel that our synagogue can answer that need."

Many female members welcome Wohlberg's changes to the service, which include permitting women to carry the Torah in their section of the sanctuary at certain times of the year.

Some women congregants, though, can't stand the idea of a partition. "I think the mechitzah is demeaning," said Liebe Diamond, 72, a retired orthopedic surgeon who cast the only vote against the plan in the synagogue's religious services committee. "It says that a woman is out of bounds in a synagogue. She's walled off, so she will not be a sexual inducement."

There are at least 2,000 Orthodox synagogues in the United States. Some, like Beth Tfiloh, define themselves as modern Orthodox, referring to their greater engagement in the secular world and their embrace of both modernity and tradition.

Concerned that an actual wall would clash with Beth Tfiloh's modern sensibility, Wohlberg devised something more modest.

"Let me tell you the sheer genius of what I came up with," he said with characteristic humor on a tour of Beth Tfiloh's sanctuary, which seats 1,500 and has a ceiling shaped like a giant tent.

Holding up a wooden board, Wohlberg explained that his mechitzah will actually be a series of saloon-style swinging doors attached to the end of each row of seats. "When you walk into the synagogue, you won't even see it," he said.

Beth Tfiloh's board of directors unanimously approved Wohlberg's plan last month. Carpenters will install the custom-made doors in January at a cost of more than $20,000. The Orthodox Union, a national association of 1,000 synagogues, has also approved the design.

"It pleases me to see them make this move, defining themselves more overtly as being in the Orthodox camp," said Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice-president of the Orthodox Union and former spiritual leader of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Baltimore. "Very few rabbis could have pulled it off as smoothly and intelligently as [Wohlberg] did."

At 59, Wohlberg has led Beth Tfiloh for a quarter-century, and his plan says a lot about Jewish life in America today.

Concerned about assimilation and a decline in the Jewish population, religious leaders throughout Judaism have boosted day school and yeshiva enrollment in the past two decades. The result, observers say, is an increasing number of Jews more engaged in their faith.

"The Jewish community as a whole can expect a new, more deeply serious generation of Jews, independent of denomination," said Rabbi Saul J. Berman, director of Edah, a national modern Orthodox organization.

Wohlberg insists the mechitzah is not a marketing device to attract the more observant to his synagogue. But with the Orthodox community gravitating toward tradition, he sensed that Beth Tfiloh, with 1,250 families, had to make a choice.

The charismatic leader, whose sermons are often studied online by other rabbis, had just signed a 10-year contract extension. He said he wanted the change to occur on his watch.

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