Segregation of women – One woman’s story

Segregation of Women on Buses

Not in Bet Shemesh, Mea Shearim or Bnei Brak

Some 30 years ago when I entered the business world, I lived with my family in Rockland County, which has the Orthodox Monsey neighborhood and the Hassidic New Square neighborhood. I found work in Manhattan and this warranted a commute of about 2 hours. I found out about transportation options and there was a charter bus company from Monsey to midtown Manhattan. This option was a boon. I drove about 15 minutes to the bus stop in Monsey, where there was a lot with ample parking. The bus had a very efficient route through Monsey and then got onto the highway straight to the city.

First, the bus was ordinary. A married couple could sit together, individuals could sit next to same sex passengers and/or their family members.

The venture was successful and became very popular among commuters and like many successful businesses, competition was soon born. The competitive company installed a curtain down the length of the aisle to separate the right from the left for modesty’s sake and to segregate between the sexes.

Please keep in mind that all this began as a lark but the passengers ignorantly accepted this new reality and even began weaving tales, legends and myths around it. Suddenly, this baseless practice was crowned halachically correct (according to Jewish law) and modest.

Women were made to sit on one side and the men on the other. If the men wanted more room, they could hook up the tail end of the curtain across the backs of one row of seats thereby shortening the women’s section. The men often did this to spread out.

The photo is unrelated to the story
and is only for illustrative purposes.

The other company, owned by continued to operate as usual, with no curtains separating the rows of seats. In time, the company was losing money as more and more, like passive sheep, chose to ride the buses with the partitions. The family that owned the company turned to the rabbi of New Square and sought his sage advice. The rabbi advised them to install curtains as partitions along the aisles of their buses.  So they did and saw that it was good!  Shortly thereafter the revenues increased.

Please remember the author who sat on the women’s side, twice every day for two hours.  What could be better than to spread out a bit?  In time, riding those buses became intolerable.  The men began the practice of standing and praying while riding – they brought a Torah scroll and would also light a candle on Mondays and Thursdays, the days on which the Torah is read during the morning prayers.

Oftentimes the buttocks of the men swaying in prayer would be level with the women’s faces.  When the men wanted more room to spread out, they would pick up the curtain and tell the women to move up and double up and sit next to one another – this was allowed, you understand?  Many times, the men would pass gas at the level of the women’s faces and if the bus was riding at high speed, they would lose balance they would lean backwards, even if they landed on the women.

The author was equipped with a large umbrella and attache case, with which she would poke them in places they would not soon forget.  The author would also, many times, poke the offending man with her shoulder.

All this was about 30 years ago.  The fights that broke out were animated and heated.  It was chilul Hashem (desecration of G-d) and sinat chinam (baseless hatred) – a shame and a disgrace.

In visits to Monsey in recent years I had opportunity to travel those buses.  There were no partitions and people sat where they wanted, without fighting.  No doubt, at some point the authorities intervened and I expect the company stood to lose its licenses and permits and, of course, its income.

Although I have lived on my own most of my life and am a certified educational coordinator for equality between the sexes, I’m well aware of differences between the sexes.  I’m also aware of different roles for men and women in Judaism but a partition on a bus is not based on any Jewish law and nowhere is it written that such a thing is necessary.  I have no problem with segregation of the sexes in a synagogue but a partition that is contaminated, filthy and malodorous that is hung along the length of the bus, which prevents parents from finding their children and properly watching over them during the ride, is not justified, not wise, not based on anything in Judaism and even dangerous.

Segregation of women, like taking a mitzvah to a higher level, is meant to elevate the soul and not the opposite.

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