By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News
The vote is in over mixed seating at Lincolnwood Jewish Congregation A. G. Beth Israel. The permanent erection of a mechitza, approved by 61 percent of the membership, removes the traditional synagogue’s last barrier to becoming a fully Orthodox shul.
“It’s very exciting. I really believe to attract new people to the shul, this will do it,” interim Rabbi Samuel Biber said of the physical divider placed between the men’s and women’s sections in Orthodox synagogues.
The formerly designated “traditional” shul started in the 1950s. As a traditional synagogue, members observed all the customs, practices and services of an Orthodox shul, but with men and women sitting together.
Early on, the relaxed standard was condoned by the Chicago Rabbinical Council, with the hope that would change. “I think that the hope was always that the traditional synagogues would become more Orthodox over time and many of the rabbis who served there attempted to bring the synagogues into the mainstream Orthodox world,” said Rabbi Yona Reiss, the Av Beth Din of the Chicago Rabbinical Council. “It’s a wonderful step forward for Lincolnwood Jewish Congregation.”
Separate seating is a non-negotiable aspect of Orthodoxy. Lincolnwood had mixed seating in the main sanctuary, but a daily mechitza service for two decades in its beth midrash. “If a member had an event or was sponsoring a Kiddush, they could request that a mechitza go up in the main sanctuary,” said Marcia Kramer, synagogue president.
The list of so-called traditional synagogues in Chicago has shortened over the years. Some have merged like AG Beth Israel and Lincolnwood. Others have folded or they’ve gone into full Orthodoxy.
Convincing members to abandon mixed seating wasn’t easy. Many members fought to keep the tradition. “It’s been months of presenting different views, cajoling in order to persuade people we need this to gain more members,” Kramer said. “We’ve been outside the mainstream for some years.”
Kramer, whose parents are founding members, is the first female president of Lincolnwood. The synagogue’s bylaws had to be changed to elect a woman to the position of president and chairman of the worship committee.
Lincolnwood hasn’t decided on a permanent rabbi because the shul was waiting until they knew what kind of rabbi was needed, Kramer said.
The reasons against a permanent mechitzah have everything to do with the tradition of seating families together, Kramer said. “That’s what they’re used to. People originally joined because it was a mixed seating congregation. But the community has changed and this type of liberalism is no longer recognized by Orthodox authorities in the city,” she said.