A Trip to Crown Heights

"Beth" by Roger Davis Servais. Via Wikipedia.

I felt my stomach clench as the Crown Heights rabbi answered my question:

“What are the Hasidic principles regarding women and divorce?”

He explained that women must have the permission of their husbands before a divorce can proceed, but that a man can divorce his wife without her consent. The rabbi acknowledged the sexist double standard of this policy, but excused it by explaining that it is rooted in deep tradition. I opened my mouth to protest, but shut it quickly, remembering the warnings I’d received to be respectful.

I was visiting Brooklyn, New York with a group of students in my Reform synagogue’s confirmation class. The group consisted of eight boys, one other girl, and two rabbis (although I noticed our female rabbi couldn’t claim her rabbinical title in the Hasidic neighborhood of Crown Heights.) Knowing I would be disconcerted, my synagogue’s female rabbi warned me about the sexism of some Hasidic principles before we entered the neighborhood, and asked me to show respect for Hasidic culture.

As our tour of the neighborhood progressed, I continued to be shocked by the strict gender roles enforced. We ended the tour with Shabbat morning services, to observe how they differ from those at my temple in St. Louis. I knew to expect that men and women would be on separate sides of the synagogue, but I didn’t anticipate the vast differences between our seating arrangements. My male peers were welcomed and encouraged to dance with the members of the synagogue. They were whisked into prayer and celebrated with energy and passion. In contrast, the girls in the group were beckoned onto a higher level of the building. All the women sat on worn out benches with a large barrier in front of us, restricting us from seeing the service below except through a small crack. I was told that the barrier was due to "the distraction of women’s voices from prayer." 

My brain brimmed with confusion. How can I take pride in a religion where my voice is shunned and separated? How can I respect more observant sects of Judaism when their traditions don’t respect me in return? I was stuck, my eyes glued to the crack in the wall where I could see the joyous dancing below me. Not one of my male friends ever looked up and noticed that we’d been left behind in the Sabbath celebration. They were so preoccupied by the spiritual observance of their faith that they forgot about those left behind: those who might “distract” from their Shabbat holiness.

Part of me longed to join the men in their rituals, while part of me simply wanted to disappear from the synagogue and forget what I’d seen. But mostly, I just wanted to respect the Hasidic Jews. I wanted so badly to find a way to overlook the misogyny that I saw in their practices, and embrace the beauty. I wanted to understand the draw of Hasidic Judaism, and embrace its strengths. But I found that, although the scene below me was wonderful and admirable in countless ways, seeing it from a story up stained the beauty with flaws I couldn’t overlook. My Judaism is so vastly different from that of the residents of Crown Heights. I could not connect with their traditions, despite trying to open my heart and mind.

My Judaism is my female rabbi who skipped services last Spring to attend a rally I organized for reproductive justice. In my Judaism, my confirmation classes consist of everything from a Planned Parenthood course on birth control to lobbying in DC for women’s issues. My Judaism is seeing Dinah, the sole daughter of Leah and Jacob, who is constantly overshadowed by her brothers in Jewish texts, featured in the center of a mosaic on my synagogue’s floor.

In my Judaism, faith and feminism are not separate; rather, they are threads woven together so tightly that they can be hard to differentiate. And I love that my Jewish education shaped me into the feminist I am today. But looking back at my experience in Crown Heights, I’m always disappointed that I couldn’t understand the other end of the spectrum. I wish I had been able to acknowledge the sexism in Hasidic practices, without feeling a wave of disgust and superiority.

I don’t think Hasidic Judaism will ever be the branch of my faith I relate to, and I don’t think I will ever be unbothered by what I perceive to be misogyny within it. And I’m okay with that. In fact, I’m thankful to have an awareness of its faults. But I hope that I will learn some day how to acknowledge where Judaism falls short, while still finding love for it at all levels of observance. I hope to learn that despite my unique love for Reform Judaism and the way I experience it, Judaism is still deserving of my love and respect outside the borders of my sect.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

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So interesting! Glad you were able to gain from this experience.

In reply to by Emma Mair

Thank you!

How to cite this page

Gage, Belle. "A Trip to Crown Heights." 22 November 2019. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 2, 2021) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/trip-crown-heights>.

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