Saturday, November 12, 2005

Shul Shopping #(What is this? 3?)--Beth Israel

This search would go a lot faster if my job did not currently wring me out so much that I come home, go to sleep on Friday night, and fail to wake up until about 11:30 on Shabbos morning. Really, it would.

Anyway, having gotten yesterday off, I managed to get up this morning in a timely fashion and take myself off to Beth Israel of Berkeley, the Orthodox Option. Report follows.

PREPARATIONS: I went for a skirt below the knees and long sleeves, not being entirely sure what the ladies' dress code looked like at Beth Israel. Then paused. I had no idea if I should bring my tallis or not. Finally decided that if they don't like it, I won't be returning anyway, except perhaps as someone's guest, and took it along.

It's a fairly long but not ridiculous walk from the North Berkeley BART station, perhaps three long blocks past University. This morning was a glorious November morning in North Berkeley, so it was very nice.

I arrived, and wandered around, trying to figure out where I should be. There was a door into the sanctuary, however when I stood on tiptoes and looked through the window in said door, it was wall-to-wall men. I worked out that the women's side is accessible through the matching door closer to the entrance, and found a seat.

Naturally, since it's still the middle of the Shacharit Amidah at this point, the women's side is pretty sparsely populated, however one of the other early populees is also wearing a tallis, which gave me the chutzpah to take out mine, and put it on.

Turns out today was some kind of international singles Shabbaton, which increased the general population quite a bit by the end of the service. Should probably return, as with Netivot Shalom, for a return look when they're not quite so distracted. Also, I was getting over a cold and had to duck out a couple of times to cough in the ladies' room. However, this is my current take:

PROS:

I love the look of the shul. It's a plain, pleasant. very Berkeleyish building, with a garden, nice multi-pane windows, white plaster walls, and a stained wood ceiling that rises to a peak with the angle of the roof. It feels nice to be in.

I did not feel self-conscious, and I feel self-conscious all the time. The dress code is variable with a high proportion of Berkeley Frum among women my age. The tallis did not seem to be upsetting people. I wasn't getting much attention, but everyone I spoke to was very nice.

It's kid-friendly. There were a lot of children racketing around and crossing back and forth over the mechitza, and everyone seemed relaxed and comfortable about them being there. This may seem like a given, but let me tell you, I've been in some shuls....Also, at the oneg, there was a small kids table set up, where the children could take their plates and sit with their friends, which I thought was a smart idea.

The oneg was very nice.

I liked the drash. Educated, topical, a gentle poke at we of Berkeley...very interesting.

They seem to have a lot of cool-sounding classes going on, some in cooperation with Netivot Shalom, who are right nearby.

Their mechitza is well-thought out. They've split the room down the center, and wrapped the mechitza around the ark and the bimah in such a way that it's separated from both sides, and accessible through little swingy doors from both sides. When the Torah is taken around, the scroll is passed from man to woman at the back of the room, through a gap between mechitza and wall which is formally blocked off by a ritual folding chair. This all allows kids to meander through at will, and allows women to get to the bimah to make announcements easily (and I'm told, deliver the occasional drash). I liked it very much.

CONS:

Slightly farther away from home than Netivot Shalom. We'll probably be moving again next summer anyway, so it could matter a lot less soon enough. Still, the Balabusta is NOT a motivated shul-goer a lot of the time. Small obstacles can be effective in keeping her away. And the walk that was so pretty this morning might be plain awful in the pouring rain a month from now.

It's Orthodox. Which presents a couple of issues:

Issue 1: I'm not. I'm not shomer Shabbos, I keep the most marginal of kosher, and I live with a man who isn't Jewish and isn't planning to be. There's a real question in my mind of how well all these things will work out. Not that they would prevent me from being a member of this shul, but how compartmentalized I'll have to keep my life. On the other hand, the fella was never interested in my Conservative shul, so, er, the compartmentalization already exists. And I'm willing to bet I ain't the only one there with these issues.

Issue 2: The mechitza is cute and semi-egalitarian, but it's there. This is not a shul that calls women to the Torah, or has women leading whole-congregation services. Despite the vocal involvement of women in the davening, the center-divide mechitza does not make it less clear that the men's side is the more involved side.

I do not especially want to layn of a Shabbos, or lead the davening, but I do like seeing other women do so, and am ideologically opposed to women being prevented from doing so. Perhaps more importantly, I am kind of looking for a shul that I can raise kids at. Now, by the time Bubba and Jezebel are born, I could be living somewhere else entirely. This is all theoretical. But I still have a lot of questions about how I would feel raising children at a shul where they will never see a woman chant the Haftorah, or be called for an aliyah.

Clearly something to think about.

Anyway, Beth Israel and Netivot Shalom seem to currently be in the lead, and luckily are the closest to me. And as a man once said to me, "You don't have to be monogamous with your synagogue..."

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

FYI, Beth Israel does do periodic women-only Torah services. Not sure of the frequency.

The Jewropean said...

"Issue 2: The mechitza is cute and semi-egalitarian, but it's there. This is not a shul that calls women to the Torah, or has women leading whole-congregation services. Despite the vocal involvement of women in the davening, the center-divide mechitza does not make it less clear that the men's side is the more involved side."

Why is the mechitza the problem? I'd say female participation, or rather lack thereof, is. Shira Chadasha and Darkhei Noam also have mechitzos and it doesn't prevent them from being egalitarian, as far as it is possible in accordance with halacha. IMHO, The mechitza as you describe it isn't discriminatory per se. The way the services happen is.

PS: Why would you want to be with a guy who doesn't care about Judaism? It does seem to be an important aspect of yourself...

Balabusta in Blue Jeans said...

I wouldn't say the mechitza is, per se, the problem. The fact that women are not called to the Torah is a problem. The mechitza is, perhaps unfairly, a symbol of the problem.

As for the guy--I love him, and we don't agree much about politics either. ;)

The Jewropean said...

Hm, I do think it would be hard if you disagree about such essential points. If you have some basic agreements, it can still be hard enough...

I'm sorry that they don't give alyos to women. I strongly think women should be given them.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and if you want to be check in advance whether there's a Bar or Bat Mitzvah at Netivot the next time you're thinking of visiting us, just check the online kiddush calendar at http://www.calendar.yahoo.com/netivot_shalom_berkeley

WBS said...

One day I'd like to visit BI (and other O shuls in the Bay Area). I've only heard positive things about it.

Hey, maybe you'll visit the shul I attend one day. :-)

Eliyahu said...

have you considered Kehilla? I have not been, but have had nice conversations with some of the leaders.. location in Piedmont, per http://www.kehillasynagogue.org/ don't know if it's acessable for you.

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Barefoot Jewess said...

Yesterday, I was talking to a woman who inspires me. She taught me tropes and I took my first steps in leyning, with her.

Her family inspires me as well. 3 boys, all growing up in Torah ways, learning to leyn as well. Everything about the family and her manner inspires me.

She said that she loved that she could be on the bimah at my (old) synagogue. At the same time, she was attached to Young Israel because of the culture- the reciprocal, easeful, hanging out on Shabbos which every congregation of a C synagogue, within my experience, does not 'get'.

I can so relate to your post. It seems that for women like us, we need to express our Judaism in a personal manner as well as desire a connected community that "gets" that community is an easy flow, like family, where everything is open and welcoming.

I spent Shabbos with her family and I am ecstatic. It was everything I dreamed, just so undemanding, and lots of joy about being together. She also wears tallit, and leyns with such a beautiful voice, and is learning to lead services and aspires to be a gabbai (feminine version). I love that she is so passionate about Judaism- it shows in her behaviour.

I think we have to keep trying, To create the best of both worlds, for women who want to express themselves in other religious ways, and for families and for community. I know that I cannot settle for less, and I am more than willing to try to make it happen.