Monday, March 19, 2018

More Perspectives from the Other Side of the Mechitza - by Michal Greenspan

Michal Greenspan has bravely and graciously agreed to share her perspective as a regular minyan attendee and a woman who is NOT saying Kaddish.  May she not need to learn about Kaddish until 120 on all sides, and may we benefit from her wisdom to improve the experience of Minyan for all, men and women inclusive.  

It is inspiring that Michal focuses on the varying reasons why people attend minyan and emphasizes the positive: "Understanding what makes other people connect to elements of religion can be inspiring and thought-provoking, and so I encourage you to continue to learn why people do what they do. But be sensitive.... Not everyone shows up to shul for the same reason. That’s what makes us interesting."

Michal also writes: "I wanted to share what it means to be on the other side of the mechitza when you’re not saying Kaddish. To be trying to connect, only to be made to feel like an outcast..." Isn't it a shame that someone so committed to exploring and building her relationship with both God and her community is made to feel this way? No wonder so many women find minyan attendance a challenge when they are not compelled by circumstances!

On a personal note, women like Michal have been my mainstay during these last few months. It has been heartening to have the companionship of other women during the service, especially those whose arrival does not break my heart through the shared grief of a joint Kaddish. Standing lonely on the other side of a barrier is no picnic, and only heightens the experience of loss and disconnection that a mourner can feel - especially when compared to the camaraderie and social capital that builds among men on the other side of the Mechitza. This is one of the reasons I stopped attending daily minyan many years ago, long before I was faced with Kaddish. Wouldn't it be beautiful to see a community of women in attendance every morning - mourners and non-mourners alike - so that those of us reciting Kaddish could have someone to turn toward us and respond? I yearn for the day when women's weekday attendance can grow to a place where I can greet others with "Good Morning" rather than "I'm sorry for your loss."

Perhaps this begins by encouraging women to attend Minyan once a week, on any day of the week - not as an attempt to obligate ourselves in the time-bound commitment but to simply help us find that elusive spiritual connection long before Kaddish enters the picture. Or perhaps it begins with some important steps on the part of the community to ensure that women feel comfortable once they do arrive. Either way, let's brainstorm together how to ease the path for all. Please use the comments as a forum to share ideas and thoughts for supporting the women of our collective community.

By Michal Greenspan

It’s been about 5 months since I’ve been attending morning minyan on a regular basis. What started as a quasi-experiment, has become a ritual routine, so embedded in my daily schedule, that without it I feel un-whole- which is unexpected, considering there have been long stretches of times in my life that I didn’t daven at all.

My mother has always been extremely spiritual. “Jewish music is food for the soul,” she says. JM in the AM would blare on the radio every morning before school, and every month I wake up to a text reminding my brothers and me that it’s Rosh Chodesh.

When I was younger my mother would try to encourage me to daven on Friday nights or Sunday mornings, but I was generally apathetic and somewhat cynical. And as I got older, she stopped asking. Instead, she would simply do. She’d pause our Friday night conversations to recite Kabbalat Shabbat or delay a Sunday morning activity so she could finish saying Tehillim.

I grew up in a house of brothers. I never felt left out of their minyan attendance. Honestly, I felt grateful. Being religious is hard. I wasn’t looking to add another thing to the list of dos and don'ts. I was never the woman who wanted to Lain, or carry the Torah, or put on Tefillin. In so many ways, I just didn’t care.

I used to make fun of my mom for her spirituality. I grew up in a house of faith, but in schools of logic, ritual, & thought. I spent more time learning Gemara than Nach. I was taught to think critically. To find meaning in text rather than song.

And yet, as I’ve gotten older, and gotten further and further from the years of formal Jewish education, I’ve found myself looking for ways to connect. And surprisingly, it has been through elements of religion that I used to laugh off. Zmirot. Jewish Music. Tefillah. I think more than anyone, I am the most surprised by how much the religious experiences I connect to have changed over time.

Recently someone asked me why I go to minyan. “Are you saying Kaddish?” he asked. And on multiple levels, the question stung. Because no, thank God, I am not, although I am surrounded on a daily basis by men and women who have committed their time to doing so. Would you ask a man that question, I wondered? Would I be more or less offended if I actually were saying Kaddish? I understood on some level why he asked. Most of the women who come to minyan say Kaddish. I would be lying if I said that when a new woman appears at minyan, I don’t look up during Kaddish to see if she too is part of the mourners club. Because we have been raised in a world where the norm is for women to show up once a week, often hours late, without any explanations or demands to do better. I’m not here to reform these expectations. As a community could we do more to encourage women to participate more? Of course! There are a million things we could be doing better, hundreds of ways we could up our standards. But I think a simple place to start is creating spaces where women feel just as comfortable as men to show up every morning to daven, without having to be the only ones to answer the question of “why are you here?” I’m happy to explain why; I know why you’re asking. But how many men have been asked the same question?

To say I started going to minyan because I was seeking religious guidance and connection only would be a lie. Sure a part of it was what many seek from religion. To feel part of something larger than themselves. To feel inspired. But I’ve realized, as I’ve been getting older and needing to learn to manage my own time, that structure is something I require. And so, honestly, a big part of Minyan for me has been adding another element of structure to my day, both religiously and logistically. It’s also really been about trying to focus. To try to stretch out the time I devote to thinking about what I want, or need, or am grateful for to more than the five minutes I used to carve out in between getting dressed and eating breakfast (which I’ll admit is not always successful).

There have been both men and women who have been encouraging of my daily routine. Whether it be a simple smile or wave of recognition when they see me on the street outside of shul, or a simple remark that they’re impressed that I go, which I don’t find offensive because honestly, I’m impressed by anyone who goes. It’s hard. And maybe it shouldn’t be. We don’t congratulate people for keeping kosher or Shabbat. But in the world we live in, minyan has become a challenge, and finding ways to connect to God is really really difficult, and it would be unfair of me to say that it’s easy for anyone.

At the same time, I think people overhype it sometimes. I was reluctant to write about my experience. Even to talk about it. Mostly because although minyan is somewhat public, for me it is personal. I do it for myself. I don’t expect others to congratulate me or pat me on the back for committing to something. Everyone makes commitments- religious or personal- public or private that can be challenging or easy.

But I’m sharing for a few reasons.

Because I found something that works for me. That works on religious and logistical levels for me at this time in my life and in some ways has become a little easier for me than I expected. And so I’m trying to lean into it. I’m not saying this to minimize my commitment, rather to say that it doesn’t have to be this. It doesn’t have to be every day. It doesn’t have to be religious, or public, and it doesn’t need to require waking up early. And so if you find something similar or wholly different, but something that brings you some sense of fulfillment I hope you try to embrace it, because your ability to commit to it may surprise yourself most out of everyone.

Because I found my mother’s actions inspiring, but maybe you connect to written words, and so here they are. I’m not a Rabbi or teacher by any stretch of the imagination. But I’m aware that there are many elements of my religious and personal life that require more effort and could use more growth. I’ve found reading other people’s experiences to be helpful at varying moments in my life, whether it be as a point of connection, inspiration or even contradiction so if this helps encourage you or make you think differently in any way, then I’ll be glad I shared.

And I wanted to share what it means to be on the other side of the mechitza when you’re not saying Kaddish. To be trying to connect, only to be made to feel like an outcast in the hopes that maybe we can try to be a little better. It’s ok to ask why I go to minyan. Understanding what makes other people connect to elements of religion can be inspiring and thought-provoking, and so I encourage you to continue to learn why people do what they do. But be sensitive. Ask everyone. Men too. Understand that your questions may be laced with bias whether intended or not, or simply try to ask without a sense of judgment or assumption. I’ve found, it’s much easier to learn this way. Not everyone is saying Kaddish for the same reason. Not everyone shows up to shul for the same reason. That’s what makes us interesting. That’s what makes this religion thoughtful and bigger than just a group of people going through the same motions like robots.

And I think on a more personal level, I also wanted a way to express something that maybe everyone else already knew, but I’m just starting to learn; my relationship to Judaism and God is in constant flux, and the things that once made me scoff, make me feel inspired. And the cynicism I thought had been embedded in my religious observance, was simply just an emotional reaction like any other, that has the ability to change with time and with experience. And that’s what makes religion dynamic and exciting. And I think maybe it’s what makes our connection with God an actual relationship. And maybe tomorrow I’ll wake up cynical again. Who knows? But for now, this works. So I’m trying to embrace it.

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I am an educator who is trained to reflect, not a rabbi or any type of halachic authority. These writings are in no way binding, and may not represent all approaches to and experiences in navigating grief. In fact, there will likely be those who disagree with me or can offer additional suggestions and reflections. For this reason, I am leaving the comments section open so that together as a community, we can broaden the scope of this blog to include a majority of human experience.

One important request: Please be respectful in posting your comments and be sure to frame your tips in the most positive phrasing possible. I reserve the right to delete any unkind comments and plan to update the original posts occasionally to include additional insights and reflections from our combined experience.

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