Those who wish to daven the daily service with a mechitza may now do so at the Jewish Center of Teaneck, the congregation announced this week. The daily services, which include the traditional morning and afternoon/evening worship, post-Havdalah through Friday evening, are being held with a portable mechitza in the shul’s Weiss Auditorium. A permanent structure is being designed for installation in the Feldman Chapel, where daily davening has historically taken place.
JCT’s House Committee, with the help of architects and engineers who are members of the congregation, is exploring design concepts and costs for the permanent mechitza. So far, there is no timetable for its completion.
The move to introduce a mechitza to the lay-led daily minyan was overwhelmingly approved by a vote of six to one in a meeting of the full congregation on Monday, June 4, said Eva Gans, who attended as first vice president.
The mechitza decision followed a six-month period of study that was inaugurated by Rabbi Lawrence Zierler in a dialogue with congregants during a break in Yom Kippur services last fall. That led to initial discussions in the religious committee, said Mark Schlesinger, its chair.
The process further included a class on the halachic and communal implications of mechitza worship offered throughout the year by Zierler.
"It is the forward-thinking membership that has engaged with me that has made this possible," he said, adding, "We respect people who voted otherwise and continue to reach out to them to let them know we care about them."
Zierler’s refusal to permit another spiritual leader, Rabbi Daniel Feldman, son of the center’s Rabbi Emeritus David Feldman, to conduct religious services in the building led earlier this spring to the departure of a Shabbat mechitza minyan that drew between 50 and 100 worshippers. That group, down to about 50 regulars, has reconstituted itself as a new synagogue, Torat Chesed, which meets at the CareOne Rehabilitation Center on Teaneck Road, said Jeff Weber, immediate past president of JCT and one of 10 members serving on the recently formed Torat Chesed board. The congregation has hired Feldman to be its spiritual leader, he said.
Maintaining his membership in JCT as well, Weber said he would consider returning to daven there on Shabbat if the center brings a mechitza into the main sanctuary. He does not routinely attend a daily minyan.
Asked if those Torat Chesed members who do daven daily would do so at JCT, Weber was skeptical. "Many of them are younger people who probably attend minyanim where they work," he said.
Those reached Wednesday by The Jewish Standard expressed hope that the JCT mechitza will lead to an increase in membership by attracting people seeking an Orthodox style of worship.
"People realize that we need to look to the future and that means to be open to different ways to have services," said Gans. "Hopefully, there will be services with and without a mechitza, so people will be able to participate and be comfortable with the service of their choice, and we’ll be able to expand our membership."
But, Zierler stressed, JCT has a way to go before it can cater to different spiritual needs. "That’s not to say that someday the center will not revisit the idea of multiple minyanim, but first we need a strong core congregation with a strong philosophy. There needs to be sense of unity before you can develop diversity."
While there are no plans to incorporate a mechitza into Shabbat services, which meet in the synagogue’s main Pressburger Sanctuary on Saturday morning, Zierler anticipates that as the membership becomes comfortable with the mechitza in the chapel, "clearly questions will continue to be asked, and this becomes a base for us to explore and measure what this means to people. It is a work in progress."
Gans, who in two years is slated to become JCT’s first woman president, observed that she would not have been supportive of installing a mechitza were it not for "the rabbi’s insistence on showing it can be a positive experience for women. His class was a very important thing for many members of the congregation to understand how a mechitza can be an empowering device and that there are things rabbis can do to empower women."
Acknowledging that it is one thing to accept a mechitza conceptually and another to see it physically and worship in that context, Zierler noted that JCT congregants have "a learning curve" ahead of them that he will seek to "handle with sensitivity."
As part of the learning process, Zierler intends to create what he called "signature services to frame Shabbat. There will be exciting opportunities for meaningful prayer going into and leaving Shabbat." Without wanting to tip his hand, Zierler mentioned "incorporating more melodic, Carlebach-type elements a couple of times a month into Friday evening’s kabbalat Shabbat service."
Zierler’s stated satisfaction with the congregation’s endorsement of the mechitza by no means will lead him to recommend that it formally affiliate with either the Orthodox Union or the Teaneck-based Union for Traditional Judaism, a "Conservadox" movement. "’Independent traditional’ is our unique designation and privileged position," he said. "We remain open to a lot of ideas and currents in Jewish life today, while maintaining fealty to halacha and its practice."