Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The Rabbi Misses the Bus

The new Central Bus Station of Jerusalem was completed several years ago. Unlike the old central bus station and its temporary replacement several blocks away, it is a modern building in all respects. It contains a shopping mall, food court, office space and, of course, a synagogue.

But the synagogue is not for everyone. It has no women’s section. I noticed this when the new bus station first opened, and I telephoned the rabbi of the Central Bus Station, Rabbi Menahem Mendel Wilhelm, to ask why there was such a glaring omission and what could be done to correct it.

According to him, the lack of a women’s section was not accidental but deliberate. “We didn’t include a women’s section in the synagogue because we were certain it won’t be used for prayer,” he said. “If we build a separate room, people will go in there to eat and smoke and sit with crossed legs [a disrespectful posture].”

“So where is there a proper place for women to pray in the Central Bus Station?” I asked Rabbi Wilhelm.

“You can pray in the hallway outside the synagogue, near the bathrooms and the payphones,” he answered.

“What?!” I blurted, stunned.

(I should point out here that Jewish law prohibits praying near a place where there might be human wastes, and even if the bathroom in question is squeaky clean, it is still considered disrespectful to pray near it. Hence my reaction.)

It seemed that Rabbi Wilhelm knew he had said something inappropriate and that I had caught him at it. “You can pray near the payphones,” he backtracked. The rest of the conversation was similarly unsatisfying.

That was roughly three years ago.

Since then, some effort has been made to correct the imbalance. Here is my translation of an article from the online edition of Ha-Zofe, dated November 17, 2002:

The planners of the magnificent shopping center in Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station, Merkazit Yerushalayim, pondered and planned every detail as they built it. But one fairly significant detail escaped their attention: a women’s section in the synagogue of the Central Bus Station. After all, among the thousands of travelers who pass through the shopping center and the Central Bus Station are many women, both religious and non-religious, who wish to use their free time to pray or recite Psalms, and they have no proper place in which to do so inside the synagogue.
Recently a letter was sent to the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, after Amnon Ben-Ammi, the director-general of Merkazit Yerushalayim, received a request to establish a women’s section in the shopping center. The rabbi of the Central Bus Station, Menahem Mendel Wilhelm, passed the letter on to the Chief Rabbi. The reply he received from Rabbi Rafael Dayan, the Chief Rabbi’s assistant, stated that in Rabbi Bakshi-Doron’s opinion, “It is proper to establish a women’s section in the Central Bus Station in order to enable women who wish to pray to do so in an appropriate area, to answer Kaddish and Kedushah [prayers which can only be recited in a quorum of ten men and not by individuals, male or female], to listen to the Torah reading and pray with the community.”
By the way, the organization responsible for the request to establish a women’s section in the synagogue at the shopping center is none other than the Israel Religious Action Center, an agency of the Movement for Progressive Judaism. Their letter to the management of the shopping center read, in part: “It is well known that ‘The nation of Israel was redeemed in the merit of righteous women’ [Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 11b]. A great deal has been written in our tradition regarding the prayers of women, the most famous of which is the prayer of Hannah [1 Samuel 10–12], of which it is written that her son Samuel, one of the greatest Jewish prophets, was born in its merit. Democracy also dictates the need for a women’s section, since its absence discriminates against women, and the principle of equality is firmly anchored in Israeli democracy.”

All well and good, but in more than two years, nothing has been done.

Actually, that is not such a big surprise. Not all religious people here in Israel are willing to follow the Chief Rabbinate. Since it is a state institution, rabbis and lay people from certain sectors of Israeli society do not view it as a truly religious entity. To them it is a bureaucracy at best and religiously suspect at worst. Given this, I do not understand why Rabbi Wilhelm would have asked for Chief Rabbi Bakshi-Doron’s opinion in the first place, especially if he had no intention of acting on it. Also, since the original appeal came from the Israel Religious Action Center, I suppose that would be yet another reason for the above-mentioned sectors to ignore anything that resulted from it, since they view that organization and its parent movement with even more suspicion, if not outright hostility.

But that is not the point. The sad fact remains that whatever the reason, Jewish women still have no proper place to pray in Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station, and the rabbi in charge believes that there is absolutely nothing wrong with this situation.

Unfortunately, it seems that I’m not the only one to have had to contend with this rabbi’s unique logic. Yesterday, a close friend of mine, a deeply religious woman and a published scholar of Jewish law, had a similar conversation with him after she tried to find a proper place to pray in the Central Bus Station. (I am guessing that this was the same rabbi with whom I spoke several years ago, based on similarities between our two conversations.) Here, in my friend’s own words and by her permission, is her account:

On Monday, December 20, 2004, I returned from a bus trip (to Tel Aviv), arriving in the Jerusalem Central Bus Station about 1:15 PM. I realized that I would not have an opportunity to pray mincha [the afternoon service] in an appropriate place later since I was heading for a walking tour that would be over after dark. I decided to go to the Central Bus Station synagogue even though I knew that it did not boast a women’s section. I said to myself: if I were a man that is what I would do—why should I do anything different because I am a woman?
I got to the synagogue and peeked in the doorway. They were almost at the end of a minyan [communal prayer requiring a quorum of ten] for mincha. The sign giving minyan times did not list a time for mincha either for the minyan that was occurring (obviously, it was ad hoc) or for one soon. I first decided to wait until they were done, then enter the synagogue and pray b’yehidut [as an individual, without a minyan]. In the meantime, more men were arriving. My next thought was that if I entered the synagogue, I would not be able to focus on the tefilah because I would be worried that men coming in would make a fuss even if they were also praying b’yehidut (no partition between men and women is required if there is no minyan, but I was worried anyway). In any event, it appeared that they were about to start another ad hoc minyan. So I decided to pray in the hall just outside the synagogue.
I had to peek in again to determine which direction to face to pray. One man asked me if I was looking for a prayerbook (the bookcase with prayerbooks was within easy reach even from the hall). He was trying to be nice. In any event, I had a prayerbook with me. I always do, partly in case I need to pray without a synagogue, and partly because my motto in these situations is “Always be prepared”—that even if a synagogue is available to me, a prayerbook may not be.
While I prayed, I noticed that a man with a longish beard kept leaving and entering a room that said on it “Egged Rabbi’s Office.” His office hours were listed as 11 AM–1 PM. I knocked on the door and he called me to come in. He smiled as he motioned me to wait a minute until he finished his phone conversation.
Our conversation went something like this:
ABC: Honored rabbi, can’t there be an arrangement for women to pray in the synagogue? I prayed in the hall, which isn’t modest with everyone passing by.
Rabbi: I have heard this complaint before. Let me explain to you. The synagogue is in the mamad [room that can be sealed in case of a gas attack], so we aren’t allowed to cut another door into it. So there can’t be a separate entrance for women. Besides, it’s a transitory synagogue; everyone is hurrying to their buses. It’s not like a regular synagogue which requires a women’s section. Since it’s transitory, no women’s section is required.
ABC: So you mean, according to halakha [Jewish law], I could walk into the room and pray with all the men, without there being a women’s section. But the men there don’t know that; if I went into the room there would be a fuss. So why not just put up a partition in the room?
R: But we can’t cut another door.
ABC: If you say that according to halakha no separation is required anyway, why not have everyone go in the same door and have a partition in the room?
R: A women’s section requires a separate door.
ABC: But you said no women’s section is required ...
R: In the Tel Aviv bus station, they made a separate room for women to pray. I don’t want to tell you what that room was used for. A man and a woman went in there so they could be alone together ... terrible things. Women find other places in the bus station to pray, quiet places, in the [third floor?] balcony ...
ABC: I didn’t know what direction to pray in ...
R [interrupting]: You pray in that direction [motioning].
ABC: I had to look into the room to see what direction to pray in. That’s not modest. If there were a women’s section, that problem would be solved. In the new terminal at Ben Gurion Airport, in the arrivals, there’s a women’s section in the synagogue. That’s also a transitory situation.
R: That’s different. People have hours to wait for their planes, whereas here it’s buses.
[Unfortunately I did not think to say that at Arrivals in the airport, no one is waiting for a plane, rather they want to leave the airport as soon as they can, so the situation is certainly transitory. In addition, at the airport synagogue men and women use the same entrance.]
ABC: I must say that I fail to see your logic. Thank you.

A final point: it seems that irony is alive and well in the realm of the sacred. The name of the synagogue in the Jerusalem Central Bus Station is Bat Ammi—which means, in English, “Daughter of My People.”

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