In 1983, my Aunt took me to an all-women’s minyan. Had my traditional parents known about it beforehand they probably would not have let me go. But I was 9 years old at the time and went along happily. The women running the minyan were Orthodox, so they didn’t recite any prayers that required a minyan – no kaddish or kedusha. There was a young girl there celebrating her Bat Mitzvah who read the entire parshah, including the haftorah. The experience made a powerful impression on me and is something I continue to reflect on.
At the age of 9, the social revolution that drove women to explore these types of minyanim was beyond me. It never occurred to me to wonder at the mechitza in our shul or question why I was behind it. I certainly never considered the ramifications of not having a public role in Judaism. In retrospect, this one experience helped to develop my conceptualization of a woman’s unique power, specifically in regard to prayer.
At the time, my younger brother was very busy practicing the prayer of Anim Zemirot with his best friend. In Shul on Shabbos, at the end of davening, a young boy leads the congregation responsively in this song. I was so jealous watching my brother learn how to do this. At that women’s minyan, I realized that this was my chance and I asked my aunt if they would let me lead the song. When they actually called me up, I was beside myself. As it turned out, I didn’t know the words as well as I thought I did and I found the experience to be pretty embarrassing. Imagine what boys feel like who are put on the spot all the time to get up and read publicly? What if he is shy or not a good reader? What if he has a bad voice? Or a has a good voice, but never gets picked? What a different perspective!
Knowing how the other half lives was definitely eye-opening. However, what made the biggest impression and by far the most bizarre aspect of the service (which I still feel vividly), was the novel experience of being a participant in Shul rather than a spectator. As a woman, we are watchers and observers in public prayer. We are one step removed from the action. Not involved in the procedural aspects or called up to participate and perform. Even as a child, I sensed there was something not quite right about losing the protective barrier of the mechitza.
In today’s world, far more intensely than the early 80s when my aunt took me to a woman’s minyan, people place a disproportionate value on public experience. If it didn’t happen on Facebook, did it actually happen? Everything we do gets put on social media in one form or another. Our engagements and weddings are announced on simcha platforms and shared via What’s App. Our vacation pics are up on Facebook. We advertise our businesses by creating a personal story on Instagram.
Privacy is a lost virtue. Current society rewards and respects coming out. If someone went through a bad experience, telling people about it publicly signals bravery. When choosing to keep trauma or tragedy private, there is often an assumption of shame or issues that haven’t been worked through. Sharing a personal story has become the de facto way to help people. As if only by ripping away personal privacy can anyone be impacted by a message.
I didn’t like the woman’s minyan, because even as a child, I felt uncomfortable praying in a spotlight. Praying is private and involves my own personal relationship with G-d. Men thrive on social pressure, while women stay constant in the face of it – or without it. Our prayers can be said anywhere. Women don’t need a group, an external structure, procedure, or public acknowledgment. What an incredible superpower.
Perhaps it’s up to us women to remind the world about the importance of privacy. Modesty and privacy do not assume embarrassment or shame. Instead, privacy is often the mark of the profound value we place on something. Our most precious possessions are usually the ones we keep close, locked up and shared only with those we trust. In a world where “letting it all out” is an imperative, praying in private reminds us that the greatest power is within ourselves.