Paula Fricke of Myers Park Baptist visits Safed
In this famed center of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, the Charlotte group had spent a few hours buying souvenirs along the citys cobblestone alleyways. With darkness descending and the tour bus waiting, there was just enough time for one more stop.
It was near closing time at the 16th century Abuhav Synagogue. But, yes, a bearded member of the Orthodox congregation said, they could come in and visit with one caveat.
The men could come through the front door. And though there was no service, the women still had go up to the womens section in the balcony.
This news rocked Paula Fricke. She got angry. And confused: Was this the same Israel she had lauded in a high school term paper as a beacon for womens equality?
In Charlotte, Paula, 61, runs a non-profit Trips for Kids Charlotte that mentors children through bicycling. But as she climbed the stairs to the balcony, she was feeling like the kid she was back in Milwaukee when people often told her Youre a girl. You cant do that.
Paula wasnt Jewish, but most of the other kids in her neighborhood were. And from them she learned about Israel, this country where women served in the army next to men. When Paula was in high school, Israel even got a woman as prime minister: Golda Meir.
After college, Paula waged her own battles against gender prejudice. In 1975, she sued a semi-private club in Indianapolis that wouldnt let her golf on Labor Day. Women, she was told, were barred on holidays and Saturdays. Four years later, as a result of her suit, the club changed its policy.
Now here she was, standing in a balcony in Israel while the men in the group walked about below, inspecting the distinctive blue bimah, or pulpit, in the center of the historic synagogue.
The reaction of the other Charlotte women ranged from irritated to offended. But Paula pursued it, speaking in the days that followed with Rabbi Judy Schindler, who explained that there is equality in Israeli secular society but not always in the religious sphere.
Then the group attended a Shabbat, or Sabbath, service at a kibbutz near Jerusalem. Its rabbi was also a woman, and one winning headlines in Israel for being the test case in the fight for non-Orthodox rabbis to get salaries from the state.
Eventually, Paula realized that Judaism, like her own Christianity, is diverse, with a spectrum of beliefs and customs.
Orthodox Jews, more plentiful and powerful in Israel than in the United States, are traditionalists who separate men and women, especially during worship. And Reform Jews like Rabbi Judy and many on the trip have been in the forefront of promoting equal rights for women.
It was an eye-opening moment for Paula.
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