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mechitza

July 21, 2010

We woke up refreshed and ready to learn on Sunday morning…at least I was, I am proud to say that I was the second person to arrive in our morning meeting rooms at the hotel. This is a first for me to be early in the morning… and on a Sunday morning to be early is simply a shock to everyone who knows me. One of the things about Israel, in contrast to my weekends in the states, is that I really miss having two days of the North American weekend. Here in Israel you get about a day and a half off from work… So as you can see from the photos from Shabbat yesterday, I slept in, missed breakfast, went to the pool and had a nice conversation with my friends, Michael from Australia, Tiffany from New York and Eduardo from Torino, on our feelings about about the Mechitza scandal of the night before.

Edoardo Segre from Italy is a religious man who guards Shabbat each week. He even prepared for Tisha B’Av by not eating meat during the nine days before this holiday commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples. Before speaking with Edoardo I did not even knew that folks don’t eat meat before this holiday. He was able to explain this and many other traditions that he participates in with genuine mensch′en kindness.

Most hotels and public spaces in Israel have a small room where folks can go and pray. It is Israel so every factor, celebration and conflict of pluralistic identity and diversity come into context when religious folks that are interested in praying in their traditional Sefardi, Ashkenazi or Mizrahi ways are mixed in with a little Americana Trans-denominational led service by our brilliantly talented friend Bodi. So our group was first to arrive in the room and Bodi, Eduardo and a few of the other men from our group began to daven and the women in our group sat on the left side of the Mechitza.

I had no idea what to do in this scene. I did not know where to stand or sit… So in a rescue effort my friend, another incredible mensch, Jonas Herzberg Karpantschof of Copenhagen, waved his hand at me when he saw me looking puzzled. He asked me to sit in the back row of chairs with him. Our leader, Ami Mehl came in after we started to pray and sat next to me on my left.

Framing my experience outside of the gender binary and within the delicate balance of pluralism and tradition was helped by my reading Balancing on the Mechitza before I left for Israel. This book, a collection of deeply personal and theoretical contemplations by activists, theologians and scholars, edited by Noach Dzmura, explores experiences of Jewish worship through a Transgender lens.

Within moments a few men walked in and started arguing with Bodi and Ami that the Mechitza should be behind the men so they can join us in prayer. Behind the men means to me that they could not just have women separated to the left of the Mechitza they were telling us they needed the women physically behind them in order to pray.

The argument was dramatic and loud and before I could really pretend to translate the conversation it was over. I assume that Bodi and Ami won the argument, if that could be possible, because we stayed in the room with the Mechitza simply dividing the room in half. I sat in one of the four chairs in the back where I was too distracted by the scene to daven.

With my friends the next morning near the pool our Shabbat conversations revolved around the mechitza incident the night before and what it brought up for us within our personal constructs of feminism, gender identity, Judaism and Israeli pluralism. Each of my friends mentioned that they were raised within some level of the modern Orthodox movement.

We were four Jews from three different countries on Shabbat listening to each other, learning and validating each of our experiences on how we see balancing the traditions of mechitza within halacha. In the end of the conversation I remember thinking, thank g*d, I can have gender reconstructed dialog with this incredibly brilliant group of people that understand halacha without anyone using halacha to help cite judgement but instead build greater understanding for all of us.

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