Question: Here’s a question for you: What’s a trichitza? I ask you because my daughter came home from college so excited that her Hillel has one. I had no idea what it is, even though I am an observant Jew. When I found out, I felt I must educate more people about this nifty invention. My daughter feels having three sections allows everyone to feel included in her college services! I am writing to you in the hope that you can use your column to spread the word about this welcome, and welcoming, innovation.
Answer: Let’s begin with the basics. A “mechitza” is a partition between two sections of a synagogue. Orthodox Jews use this divider to separate women and men during prayer. These dividers come in many forms. Some are decorative, some are simple, some are perpendicular to the bima and some are parallel to the bima, with the women in the back. In addition to the physical separator, there is a metaphorical one which exists as a “collection of gendered norms and divisions that pervade Jewish communities and institutions, even in mixed-gender spaces.” Jews grappling with issues of gender segregation tackle both the physical distinction and the culture which arises from it.
Traditionally, the mechitza exists so that men and women will not be distracted from prayer by their sexual urges. This assumes that everyone in the synagogue is cisgender (identifying with the gender you were assigned at birth) and heterosexual. Nonbinary Jews may feel uncomfortable, not belonging to either side, and transgender Jews are often not allowed on the side with which they do identify.
A “trichitza,” or three-way mechitza, divides the space between men and women but also provides a third space open to people of all genders. It also provides an opening for Jews of different sects – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal and secular humanist – to create a shared, pluralistic prayer space.
Believe it or not, the trichitza has been around for a while. Between World War I and World War II, they were somewhat common as congregations tried to negotiate between members who wanted to retain traditional gender-separated seating and those who wanted communal and family seating. In 1954 when a conflict arose in congregation Adath Israel of Cincinnati, over optional family seating, the congregation solved the problem by providing seating in the center for families and on the sides for men and women separately.
The concept of separation within Judaism is contentious, and the trichitza is one potential solution. Traditional Judaism emphasizes the value of separation, delineating the holy from the profane by lighting candles every Shabbat and every holiday. Some may argue that making a third space negates that core principle. Trans and nonbinary Jews would argue, however, that creating a third space is correcting an exclusionary practice of normative Judaism and creating new rituals and spaces allows queer Jews to feel fully included as a members of the community. The trichitza is a beginning, as it gives LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, inersex asexual) Jews a space to exist physically within traditional communities. However, Jewish LGBTQIA+ activists have awakened many communities of the needs for all Jews to be welcomed verbally as well as spatially, including reconceptualizing gender from a binary to a continuum. They envision a Judaism which will not ignore queer experiences, but will also celebrate their experience of spirituality. Queer Jews are created “b’tzelem elohim,” in the image of G-d. Thus, Judaism is inextricably intertwined with queer identities.
In traditional communities, some members may object to the presence of a third space at all, asking if its mere existence allows congregants to ignore important gender distinctions. They may not want there to be a comfortable mixed space! However, the trichitza offers traditional communities the opportunity to grapple with gender issues while giving every congregant autonomy to make their own decision. Individuals within the community may hold different opinions and practices, but the synagogue as a whole can decide whether to compromise for the sake of inclusion.
There is always a tension in Judaism between the traditional past and hope for a more perfect future. The long history of mixed seating in synagogues provides a framework for combining equality and religious modernity. One of the beauties of Judaism is that it appreciates the past while incorporating it into a living present. For Jews attached to traditional gender mores, the trichitza provides one means to do that. Transgender Jews exist, Queer Jews exist, and the trichitza includes them in a vision for a more perfect future. It provides one answer to the question many Queer Jews are forced to ask: “Will the future of traditional Judaism include me?”
If you have any questions for Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, The American Israelite’s advice columnist, please send them to email@example.com.