On a Friday evening in mid-November, bunches of students gathered just inside the door of The Bayit, Wesleyan University’s Jewish program house. It was already 6:30, but no one had taken their seats.
A makeshift mechitza made of clothesline and sheets bisected the generally egalitarian prayer space. The traditional barrier between men and women made its first appearance in recent memory on a campus where gender is interrogated so thoroughly that even gender-segregated bathrooms are widely protested.
“In some ways, our service was a test of how far the Jewish community’s pluralism and tolerance would extend,” said Erica Belkin, a sophomore at Wesleyan and one of the two organizers of the service.
“There is a norm for a Wesleyan Shabbat which is basically Havurah-conservative,” she continued, referring to the style of services that relies on audience participation for its content. The organizers wanted to show the community that there is more diversity within Jewish tradition than is generally apparent at Wesleyan.
Rabbi David Leipziger, the university’s Jewish chaplain, praised the exercise, saying, “It was a great idea. We are a laboratory for Jewish identity.”
Some students, too, reported being pleasantly surprised by the change. Sophomore Rachel Bedick said, “The female energy on my side of the mechitza was spiritual, playful…and empowering. The mechitza …lower barriers between the women so that we were able to be more relaxed and open with each other, which made for a better service.”
Z, a senior who prefers to remain anonymous, is a member of both the Jewish and transgender communities, and questioned the attribution of a pleasant environment to gender. “What is ‘female energy’ anyhow, and who has it?…People should be aware of what they like without ascribing it to some sort of gender dynamic.” The division, Z remarked, “does not distinguish between sex and gender, preemptively excluding transgendered people from the spiritual community space.”
The traditional purpose of the mechitza is to prevent men from being distracted by women. Many feminists have critiqued the practice for painting women as merely sexualized objects, erasing their sexual desire, and for assuming the heterosexuality of community members. Z’s protest was echoed by many.
“Safe spaces should be provided for everyone, including those who prefer Orthodox traditions like the mechitza,” said junior Daniella Schmidt. “However, these traditions should not come at the expense of others’ safe space and inclusion.”
The Bayit is located just across the street from Open House, which focuses on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning (LGBTQQ) life. The two houses share resources and host joint events, like this spring’s 2006 National Union of Jewish LGBTQQ Students Conference.
“There are a lot of queer Jews on campus,” said Z. “I wasn’t comfortable attending the service… for my political beliefs and…for my identity. I don’t know what the guidelines are for meeting the specific needs of individuals, but I don’t think we would hold a service which a person in a wheelchair, for example, could not participate in.”
Z reflected on the queer-themed Shabbat services he co-organized. “I know other people were uncomfortable with Queer Shabbat,” he said. “We tried to be responsive to peoples’ needs and opened up the planning process to suggestions and comments through email and announcements at services. To my knowledge, the mechitza service did not do that.”
In response to protests like Z’s and out of a desire to create a service comfortable to many people, many congregations are introducing the three-part mechitza, which offers a mixed section in addition to men’s and women’s sections.
Belkin said they rejected this option for fear that everyone would have chosen the mixed area, and the value of the single gender spaces would have been lost.
“I can’t speak for other students,” said Z, on the idea of a three-part mechitza, “but I would have been more comfortable with [it], especially if the third section was labeled as ‘choosing not to engage in this activity’ rather than ‘genderqueer.”