A Voice In The Heights Is Heard

The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools (Kohelet 9:17)

Like all Jewish communities Washington Heights has its share of internal controversies, but rarely do they become publicized. Most discussions on the Maalotwashington message board did not get circulated and at times they were moderated when the discussion happened to get out of hand. In the rare instances that a significant problem arose, we have usually been able to achieve some resolution or at least mutual understanding and do so with minimal fanfare.
But as the community continues to grow and the transient community constantly changes, the internal dynamics will naturally have to adapt. Having more people in the community means more ideas and opinions among the congregation, but fewer outlets for an individual to express them. In Washington Heights this can be particularly frustrating since the community is ideologically diverse (relatively) there are more opinions and perspectives which would be ignored or in some cases suppressed. From the other point of view, it is likely that an established community would have confronted many of the “new” issues at some point and would not wish to repeatedly revisit old arguments every few years given the high turnover of members. The mutual question at hand then becomes how can individuals express themselves, and in turn, how does the community respond.
The past few weeks have been unusually eventful with a heated debate over women speaking in the synagogue and the formation of a new “progressive” minyan. While both could be considered controversial to varying degrees, the discussions surrounding them demonstrate different examples of expression within a religious community.

Let us begin with the issue of women speaking in the synagogue. In an attempt to liven up (and ideally shorten) the tedium of shul announcements, the ritual committee1 decided to hold open auditions in which anyone could volunteer to give the announcements and the members would cast their votes on the shul website. The operative word in the previous sentence is “open,” implying anyone could participate. However, it was decided that women should be excluded on the grounds of religious and communal policy, ultimately confirmed by R. Schnaidman.
Naturally, there was opposition to this decision. Not only are there women in the community who would be more than qualified (and entertaining) to make the announcements, but the reasons R. Schnaidman gave for his decision were unsatisfying to say the least. According to one account, quoted and confirmed by Jewess, R. Schnaidman, “…believes that a woman making announcements may create a sexual sort of atmosphere that would be inappropriate for a holy place.”
Here is a response posted to the Maalotwashington message board (also via Jewess):

the question is do our male counterparts want to acknowledge our abilities to participate and contribute to the Jewish community? Unfortunately, many are not interested and are willing to hide behind the false guise of misinterpreted or non-existent halakhha [sic] in order to hold the ground of the man’s territory, which also happens to be the same sanctuary that us women are supposed to pray and maybe even be included in. Thus far my phone has rung in order to plan and help execute fundraisers and various shul functions. Mt. Sinai is happy to take my time and money as long as the following actions are done behind the scenes.

As could be expected, this comment and blog post was not well received on the message board which quickly devolved into a flame war to the extent that the moderator subsequently blocked the thread.
This is not the first time women have been offended or felt excluded by religious policies in Washington Heights, nor is it the first time religious dialogue has gotten out of hand. When I was an intern at the Bridge shul in 2002, both shuls were reluctant to allow women to have a Sefer Torah for both communal and halakhic reasons.2 For example, the communal arguments were that Breuer’s would disapprove or that the shul would get an undesired reputation as “one which had women’s hakafot” as its defining characteristic. Others objected to its halakhic permissibility for various reasons. Regardless of either Rabbi’s opinions there was also division within the community itself with both men and women taking both sides, and the Rabbis left to find compromise. From personal experiences, one congregent thumped R. Schachter’s article from Ikvei Hazton, while others criticized my lack of vocal support in favor of women’s rights.3
In the short-term this sort of dialogue only served to increase the tensions in the community – the less said about that year’s hakafot the better – but it was an important learning experience for everyone involved. People realized that as the community was changing that there would be new challenges and that interpersonal confrontations would not be the most effective means towards an amenable resolution. Even today the issue of women’s hakafot is discussed annually, but both the shul and congregants have improved the tone and atmosphere of the dialogue.
But while the issue of announcements itself has not been as polarizing among the larger community as the hakafot debate, the rhetoric among the individuals has been comparably hostile. Over the message boards both a member of the ritual committee and the Rabbi of the shul were demeaned and this past week there was an ad hominem insult from the auditioning announcer.4 Despite the frustrations involved, this sort of “dialogue” is inexcusable on a personal level and counter-productive communally. This is not only applicable for the shul membership, but certainly for the Rabbi whose job and halakhic responsibility is to define his synagogue’s religious policy.5
If the status quo of a synagogue is not optimal for whatever reasons, one is not obligated to attend. This brings us to the new Migdal Ohr minyan which will have its first meeting this Friday night. According to their facebook group profile:

We are a new minyan in Washington Heights that is a reflection of the growing progressive Orthodox spirit in our community.
Our mission is to create a warm, participatory environment dedicated to enhancing kavanah (devotion) and forward mindedness in tefillah (prayer), while working within the context of halacha (Jewish law). Building upon this paradigm, our goal is to foster a spirit of social action within the larger context of Washington Heights. We challenge members to take an active role in their religious expression. This includes, but is not limited to, more participation by all members of the community.

Some people with whom I have spoken have considered this a “break away” minyan from Mt. Sinai, but in fact Migdal Ohr is following also a model well established years ago when the young people began holding regular kabbalat shabbat or mozaei shabbat minyanim in 182 Bennett. Then, as now, there were those who felt dissatisfaction with the existing institutional minyanim and instead of demanding or expecting accommodation they decided to create their own alternative. Neither minyan were formed in opposition to the status quo or to create a schism within the community.6 There were no declarations of independence nor missives against the shuls, but rather there was an open invitation to those who would be interested.
Migdal Ohr’s non-confrontational approach is an improvement in that any potential hostility is minimized; they are not attacking anyone so there is no need for defense. Even if someone were to publicly oppose the minyan, I doubt that there would be a retaliatory response. However, I’m not entirely sure that the absence of dialogue entirely is beneficial to the community either. I suspect that given how poorly the announcements were handled that people felt discussion would be pointless. If so, I find that unfortunate.
A community such as Washington Heights can only grow and develop when there is input and activity from the various members. That it has changed as much as it has since I first moved in is a testament to the individuals who put in the time and effort to make the community their own. Just as in conversations one sometimes needs to adjust how one speaks in order to be heard, both the younger members and the synagogues have adapted to each other over time. And while cannot interject in the middle of a conversation with expectations of immediate understanding, remaining silent (or demanding silence) only ensures that a voice would remain stifled.
Despite the current setbacks, I have full confidence that the community will survive mostly because Washington Heights is fortunate to have several talented and intelligent people who know how to handle the diversity of so many different needs and opinions.
As long as people remember how to talk to each other, there will be those around to listen.

1. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a sitting member of Mt. Sinai’s ritual committee. It was the decision of the committee to hold the competition, but not on who could or could not participate. Also, let me be clear that I am not writing on behalf the committee. All opinions presented here are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other individual committee members or the committee as a whole.
2. Interestingly, R. Schnaidman’s position regarding women’s announcements is consistent with his approach to women’s hakafot. Based on my conversations with him regarding hakafot, R. Schnaidman’s concern is that some men could or would stare inappropriately at the women and while this would be bad enough on its own would be far too incongruous when women would have a Torah. But it is important to remember that R. Schnaidman’s pesak is not one of halakha per se, but of halakhic policy. R. Schnaidman does not consider women having a sefer Torah or in speaking publicly to be intrinsically prohibited – indeed, women have given shiurim in Mt. Sinai’s sanctuary and have in the past delivered divrei torah for seudah shelishit.
3. This led to one of the more amusing exchanges in my internship year. See footnote 7 in my post Understanding Orthodox Judaism.
4. The offending comment could be classified as a “botched joke,” but even the intended comment was thoroughly inappropriate. I will not dignify it further by repeating it.
5. On this point, in my discussion with R. Schnaidman I suggested that given today’s culture and the maturity of the congregants that the odds of improper thoughts would be minimized. Specifically I referred to the principles in the laws of modesty of “darkan lechasot” (that which is covered) which applies the principles of cultural relativity to the halakhic application. R. Schnaidman agreed with the logic – even reporting that R. Soloveitchik used principle in certain cases – but he had a different social assessment of the congregation, that men (or at least some men) would still react inappropriately.
6. Many Migdal Ohr attendees are members of Mt. Sinai and were in shul for Shaharit.

One Response

  1. Karen Shulman
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